Air Pollution Experts Awarded 2012 Tyler Environmental Prize

LOS ANGELES, California, March 20, 2012 (ENS) – The Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement today announced that it is honoring two experts on air pollution with the 2012 Tyler Prize for their work to advance the scientific understanding of air pollution, and develop solutions to reduce the danger to human health and the impact on climate change.

John Seinfeld, PhD, of the California Institute of Technology, is recognized for his groundbreaking work leading to understanding of the origin, chemistry, and evolution of particles in the atmosphere. The fundamental understanding of the physics and chemistry of urban and regional air pollution that emerged from his research served as the basis for action to control the effects of air pollution on public health.

“The Tyler Prize is the highest recognition in the field of environmental science,” said Seinfeld. “It’s a humbling honor.”

Kirk Smith, MPH, PhD, of the University of California at Berkeley is recognized for his work identifying that household air pollution in developing nations is responsible for nearly two million premature deaths per year, disproportionately among women and children.

Since its inception in 1973 as one of the world’s first international environmental awards, the Tyler Prize has been the premier award for environmental science, environmental health and energy, given to those who confer great benefit upon humankind through environmental restoration and achievement. The Tyler Prize was created by John Tyler, who founded Farmers Insurance Group in 1928, and his wife, Alice Tyler. The Prize is administered by the University of Southern California.

This year each Tyler Prize laureate will receive a $100,000 cash prize and a gold medal. On April 26, Seinfeld and Smith will deliver public lectures at The Forum at The Tutor Campus Center at the University of Southern California.

In a private ceremony the following evening, the Tyler Prize Executive Committee and the international environmental community will honor Seinfeld and Smith at a banquet and ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

“Professors Smith and Seinfeld are giants in the efforts to understand and reduce the devastating impacts of air pollution,” said Tyler Prize Executive Committee Chair Owen Lind, professor of biology at Baylor University. “Their respective research has dramatically advanced our understanding of the ways in which air pollution threatens our health as individuals and the health of the planet.”

Dr. John Seinfeld (Photo courtesy CalTech)

Seinfeld holds the post of Louis E. Nohl professor and professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.

His research on the complicated interactions between pollutants, and the new molecules they produce, helped to launch an entirely new field of research on organic aerosols that continues to expand today.

Seinfeld started his research with a large transparent Teflon bag on the top of his laboratory. Today his research tools include a new smog chamber and airplanes.

“It’s like peeling an onion. With each new tool to measure and study these molecules, we see more layers and learn more about what is actually contained in these particles,” said Seinfeld.

Air pollutants are estimated to cause 50,000 deaths in America each year. A better understanding of what is contained within these particles will help biologists and physicians understand and address the impact on human health, says Seinfeld.

“In the southeastern part of the U.S. there are vast areas of vegetation in which there are large urban centers,” said Seinfeld. “Understanding how this mixture of man-made and natural emissions behaves in the atmosphere is one of the current challenges.”

The impact of the pollutants that result from the mixing of man-made and natural emissions, called secondary organic aerosols, is not limited to human health. These particles also play an important role in the Earth’s climate.

“These particles in our air can have two effects on climate. They reflect sunlight away from the Earth and cool its surface, and also serve as the building blocks of clouds, which play a huge role in determining our climate,” explained Seinfeld. “When the chemistry of clouds changes, so does our climate.”

Smith is a professor of global environmental health at the School of Public Health, University of California at Berkeley.

Dr. Kirk Smith, UC Berkeley (Photo courtesy UC Berkeley)

In 1981, Smith was the first to identify the harm caused by smoke from the burning of wood or dung in homes in the developing world. For the last 30 years, Smith’s research has focused on measuring the damage it does to people’s health and looking for solutions.

“We now understand that the deadly effects of these fuels that are used by nearly half the world,” said Smith. “The impact of household air pollution is on scale with any other major health risk in developing countries, including exposure to HIV, mosquitoes or dirty water.”

“Most people recognize that smoking is the worst thing you can do for your health,” explained Smith. “The next worst thing you can do is be around smoke, and indoor fires are like being around a thousand burning cigarettes per hour. Babies may not smoke, but they are in these homes.”

In addition to recognizing the impact of these household fuels on the health of women and children, his work has led to recognition of their role in climate change.

This smoke contains partially burned materials that contribute pollutants like black carbon and greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

“We were the first in the early 1990s to do research showing that this kind of combustion also contributes to climate change,” said Smith. “If you improve combustion in households you improve health directly and you get a climate protection benefit. There’s a global benefit to improving combustion in developing countries.”

Through international carbon offset markets, nongovernmental organizations that Smith helped launch with former students now work independently to provide stoves in Uganda and other developing nations and sell tools to better measure air quality.

One program in India provides stoves to poor pregnant women as part of their prenatal health services and will track improvements in their babies’ birth weights to measure the benefit to health.

“This is not just a technical challenge, but it’s a behavioral challenge,” explained Smith. “We have improved stoves, but now we must focus on how to pay for these stoves, get them out to people, and make sure people are using them.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.