Research roundup: Environmental solutions from Stanford
BY CLARE BALDWIN
There are nearly 500 faculty members doing environmental research at Stanford. Many focus on pressing issues of human health, environmental health and public policy. Below is a sampling of their work in a variety of disciplines—anthropology, law, history and engineering, among others. A number of these interdisciplinary research efforts have been awarded Environmental Venture Project (EVP) grants from Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.
Cable TV, but no toilets
An average adult produces 0.2 to 1.2 pounds of excreta each day, and half a gallon of urine. By the fall of 2008, Jenna Davis, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and center fellow at the Woods Institute, hopes to understand what motivates people to manage their excreta the way they do.
"Approximately 2.4 billion people on the planet don't have even the most basic form of sanitation, meaning a semi-decent hole in the ground with a superstructure," Davis said.
Yet those same families have cable television and mobile phones. "In order to run a taxi business, you must have a mobile phone," she said. "It would be nice if your children didn't come into contact with excreta, but because not all homes have a latrine, the kids will still get sick."
Those families who install latrines are providing benefits to the community that Davis would like to quantify. "Might there be a justification to subsidize these services since people are actually providing a public good?" she said. "Households are not passive recipients of environmental policy in these communities. They are actively shaping and participating in environmental management."
In 2006, Davis received an EVP grant to help find cost-effective ways to reduce childhood mortality from water- and sanitation-related diseases in Mozambique.
Construction and demolition debris such as concrete, wood and plastics account for roughly 40 percent of U.S. landfills—and are largely non-biodegradable. Sarah Billington, the Clare Booth Luce Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is working to create building materials that are made from renewable resources that can completely decompose.
With support from the EVP grant program, she and her colleagues have begun studying biocomposites made with fiber-reinforced polymers. The fiber can be anything from hemp to banana leaf; the polymer can be manufactured from soybean oil, cellulose acetate or bacteria.
Billington's research group is focusing on bacterial polymers. "The neatest thing is that if you degrade the composites anaerobically, it gives off methane and that methane can be the feedstock for the bacteria to produce more polymer," Billington said. "You get a full circle."
So far, the biocomposites are showing strength similar to that of wood and are lighter in weight, as well as resistant to corrosion.
Billington is still investigating the rates at which the biocomposites will degrade while in use. Depending on the results, the biocomposites could either be used as long-term structural elements such as beams and walls, or short-term, as scaffolding, temporary shelters or pallets. Either way, the amount of non-biodegradable material in landfills would be reduced.
Palm-oil production and disease
Palm oil is frequently mentioned as an alternative to fossil fuels, but there may be serious consequences to developing that resource.
Jamie Jones, assistant professor of anthropological sciences, is concerned about how the deforestation and land conversion involved in increasing production of palm oil will affect transmission of such diseases as malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis.
Malaria causes 500 million infections and 1 million deaths annually. It is transmitted by female mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles. On the island of Borneo, the species An. maculatus flourishes in forest clearings and An. leucosphyrus in forests. Depending on the species present, clear-cutting will either increase or decrease the incidence of malaria.
"There's such an ecological story to it and there's a big demographic story to it too," he said.
Jones' study site is West Kalimantan, Borneo. There are now 3.7 million hectares under oil palm cultivation in Borneo, and Indonesia and Malaysia produce 90 percent of the world's palm oil. Production is expected to double by 2020, and the economic importance for the two countries is tremendous.
Although Jones is just beginning his study, there is cause for concern: Oil palm and rubber plantations have increased disease transmission in other parts of Southeast Asia. In Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, both dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis transmission increased in oil palm plantations.
Trial drive for SUVs
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently set fuel economy standards for light trucks and SUVs at 23 miles per gallon, and ruled that they need to increase that standard by only 1 mile per gallon over the next four years.
That seemed insufficient to law students in the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, and so, with guidance from lecturer and clinic director Deborah Sivas, they put their legal education to work: They have filed arguments on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council in a case now before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco contending that NHTSA has not adequately considered the global warming implications of the policy.
This is one in a series of cases that Sivas has overseen in her 10 years supervising the clinic—ranging from the handling of the Endangered Species Act to enforcement of water and air pollution standards. "A lot of environmental litigation is over one particular project, but we're looking at these cases as trying to change the regulatory landscape more generally," she said.
In the NHTSA case, Sivas noted, "Our clients were focused on the bigger picture—this rule-making affects a huge segment of the U.S. auto market, which is a huge contributor to the overall greenhouse gas emissions in the world."
When cooking is unhealthy
Many people in Bangladesh continue to cook indoors with biomass, despite widespread efforts to get them to use improved cook stoves.
The failure to adopt new ways is costing lives. Epidemiologists have implicated biomass combustion indoors—burning dung, wood, charcoal or leaves for heating and cooking over and over again—as contributing to acute respiratory infections, the leading cause of illness and death around the world of children under age 5.
Grant Miller, assistant professor of medicine and, by courtesy, of economics, is working with the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee to understand why people aren't transitioning to the simple, cheap and much healthier alternative.
"Even when it's explained to people what the benefits of these technologies are by community health workers, there's still a big puzzle about why people don't use health technologies," said Miller, whose work was jump-started by an EVP grant.
Miller thinks a good place to begin answering this question is by distinguishing between two general theories: Either people don't understand the benefits, or there are costs that we don't recognize. Thus far, Miller said, the people in his focus groups seem to be well informed.
"If the hidden-costs view is right, it means that we're just promoting the wrong types of technologies," he said. "Maybe there are other types of technologies with comparable health benefits that circumvent these sorts of costs and that people will adopt much more."
Building better 'burbs
Margaret o'Mara, deputy director of the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West, is a historian who studies urban form and its environmental impacts. Recently, she and Karen Seto, an assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences and a center fellow at the Woods Institute, struck upon an idea they have dubbed "accidental sustainability."
For the past two years, O'Mara and Seto have used satellite imagery to compare suburban development in Bangalore, India; the Pearl River Delta, China; and San Jose, Calif. "They are replicating a very specific type of architecture in a very different national, spatial and cultural context," O'Mara said of U.S.-style suburbs and office parks in Asia.
O'Mara and Seto found that in Bangalore and the Pearl River Delta, where people are used to living in a more dense, less resource-intensive way than in the United States, the archetypical suburban neighborhood looks different.
Houses are spaced more closely, neighborhoods are more pedestrian-friendly and there is less square-footage per house. O'Mara noted that some of these characteristics are due to the high cost of land, but many of them are a result of culture.
"There's a lot we can learn from Bangalore," O'Mara said. "In the U.S., we are used to considering China and India environmental disasters and telling them what to change, but it should go both ways."
O'Mara and Seto's research is funded in part by an EVP grant.
Clare Baldwin is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.