UC Berkeley wins $1.5 million grant from the EPA

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UC Berkeley was announced Wednesday as the recipient of a $1.5 million grant awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct research measuring household combustion created by cooking, heating and lighting.

Through the grant, UC Berkeley researchers plan to measure how cooking with stoves contributes to outdoor air pollution and to introduce cleaner alternatives for developing countries suffering from cookstove pollution. Led by campus environmental health sciences professor Kirk Smith, who is serving as the principal investigator on this project, the team of researchers plan to conduct fieldwork in a largely agricultural and rural community south of Delhi, India, to study the impacts of cookstove pollution.

“Cooking seems like such a monotonous task, and it causes so much ill health globally,” said Ajay Pillarisetti, a UC Berkeley graduate student in environmental health sciences who is working with Smith on the research.

Emissions from cookstoves lead to about four million deaths per year from the resulting indoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

About three billion people around the world cook using solid fuels, such as coal and biomass, which can lead to negative health effects that include lung disease, according to Pillarisetti. Use of these fuels also accounts for a 5 percent loss in healthy life years, he added.

“We did some previous work (in India),” Pillarisetti said. “Everybody cooks outside and around the same time, so there’s a great deal of pollution in the village.”

The UC Berkeley team has three goals it hopes to accomplish throughout the project, which involve better understanding how household-level combustion creates harmful pollution, introducing cleaner cooking technologies to rural communities and intervening on a community-scale to stop exposure to harmful emissions created as a result of cookstove pollution.

Black carbon, an emission of wood-burning cookstoves, is a “climate forcer” — a gas that strongly affects the climate but does not stay in the atmosphere permanently — and a big contributor to climate change, said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. Black carbon contributes to an equivalent of 25 to 50 percent of global warming impacts, he added.

While many people recognize the damages formed as a result of cookstove pollution, the next step is to look at effective existing alternatives that can help create cleaner environments, Blumenfeld said.

“Lots of people are advocating the need to move away from polluting cookstoves,” he said. “The question is, ‘What should they move away to?’ ”

This grant is part of $9 million awarded by the EPA to UC Berkeley, Yale University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Colorado State University, the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Minnesota to address issues surrounding pollution created by household activities. Universities nationwide had the opportunity to compete for the grant, and the EPA selected six universities to push forward with their research proposals.

In past years, the EPA has offered similar funding opportunities to universities nationwide for projects including the study of nanoparticles’ effect on human health and research into the impact of pesticides on fish species.

Contact Lydia Tuan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.