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Addressing pollution brick by brick

King Center Fellow Nina R. Brooks, PhD ’20, is part of a team of Stanford researchers exploring how to reduce pollution from brick kilns in Bangladesh.
brick kilns in Bangladesh
Brick kilns in Bangladesh | Credit: Nina Brooks

When Nina Brooks, PhD ’20, first began working to address air pollution from brick kilns in Bangladesh, she thought the project would be relatively straightforward: The researchers would help kiln owners upgrade their infrastructure, emissions from the coal used to fuel the kilns would be reduced, and kiln workers and community members would suffer less from cardiovascular and respiratory problems associated with the kilns.

Five years later, she and her colleagues, led by Professor of Medicine Stephen Luby, are still trying to figure out how to successfully implement the upgrades they know can save lives. The project’s long lead time is an indication of the care the team is taking to make sure they get things right.

Historically, development and aid dollars have tended flowed to perfectly logical, low-cost interventions that are nevertheless not universally adopted by the people in developing countries they were designed to help.

nina brooks
Nina Brooks

“A lot of economic research focuses on why people aren’t doing things that are beneficial,” explains Brooks, a 2020 Stanford King Center on Global Development graduate student fellow who recently completed her Ph.D. through the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences’ Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. “Well, it turns out, there are a lot of really good reasons why people aren’t doing those things.”  

In a study Brooks published in 2019, for instance, she and her co-authors found that, although more efficient cookstoves can improve people’s health and environmental conditions, their uptake has been slow for a variety of cultural, geographical, and market-related constraints. Those constraints can be ameliorated, but only if researchers take the time to find out what people really need and want.

Brooks, who arrived at Stanford in 2015, first became involved in the brick kiln research after talking about her work on cookstoves with Luby, who was one of her advisors. She began traveling to Bangladesh during her second year, and, until the pandemic, returned every summer and at various times throughout the year to conduct fieldwork.

The project is a perfect fit for Brooks, whose interests lie at the intersection of health, the environment, and economic concerns.

“I’m really interested in the environment and economic growth and the idea that you can’t have both, which I think of as a false dichotomy,” she says.  

For the brick kiln research, Brooks developed tools for data collection and training materials for surveyors conducting a health outcomes study. She then used that data in a longitudinal analysis of more than 900 households and 3,500 individuals that quantified the impact of brick manufacturing on local air quality and health outcomes. Next, with help from computer science students enrolled in the Earth System Science class Data for Sustainable Development course, which is funded by the King Center through its Data for Development initiative, she used satellite imagery and machine learning to empirically show that existing regulations banning kilns near schools and health facilities are not enforced.

As the brick kiln research team moves to implementation, the challenge is figuring out how to incentivize kiln owners to spend money to upgrade their kilns. There are a number of low-cost changes to kiln construction and operation that can achieve substantial energy efficiency improvements. As a result, kilns produce less air pollution and owners increase profits. Kiln owners have expressed support for the Stanford team’s goals, but they’ve also made clear that they needed to make a living.

“No one is going to install an afterburner out of the goodness of their heart,” Brooks says. “We have to focus on solutions that are win-win.”

The team is working with local and regional partners, including Greentech Knowledge Solutions in Delhi and the top engineering university in Bangladesh, and has secured funding from J-PAL’s King Climate Action Initiative and Stanford Impact Labs. The researchers plan to train kiln managers and workers on proper kiln construction and operation, and, perhaps most importantly, explain the financial benefits of such improvements.

“That information really hasn’t been there,” she explains. “We want to make sure the messaging is clear: This isn’t just a cost you have to bear for the sake of the environment; this is beneficial for you too.”

Brooks, whose research also includes studies about reproductive rights and abortion access, is now a post-doctoral associate at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation studying environmental impacts on maternal and child health. But she is continuing the brick kiln research with her Stanford, India, and Bangladesh colleagues.

“It’s so striking to be in Bangladesh when the kilns are running—it really drives home how big a problem this is,” she says. “One of the many reasons this work took a while is that we wanted to make sure it really was developed with a sense of what was happening on the ground and that it reflected the needs of kiln owners.”