They may look innocuous from space, but kilns are outsized threats on the ground. In Bangladesh, a single brick kiln puts out up to 48,000 kilograms of carbon monoxide in one season. Multiply that by the country's 8,000 or more kilns, and you have a catastrophe for health and global warming.

Researchers in Bangladesh have found dangerous airborne particulates at average levels more than 90 times greater than World Health Organization-recommended levels. The result: hundreds of thousands of people who live downwind from kilns are at elevated risk for the cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Although the kilns are a health risk, few good data exist about the magnitude of the problem. Alex Yu, a postdoctoral scholar in infectious disease, is trying to fill in those gaps and learn whether other sources of pollution contribute to health problems to the extent that even if brick kilns were less polluting, the health issues would continue. 

"There are chimney stacks everywhere pouring out black smog," Yu said of the dystopian landscape he witnessed on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city. "You walk one block, and your body is covered by a thin layer of soot."

In addition to contaminating air, the kilns degrade soil around them as workers dig it up to be made into the clay that will be molded, heated and dried into bricks. Runoff from stripped patches of land damages the fertility of surrounding cropland, making it harder to grow food and compounding the kilns' health effects, Yu said.

Shifting the brick-making paradigm in Bangladesh and other countries that rely on the polluting kilns will require shifting incentives. Leo Kirby, a research assistant to Fukuyama, is looking at how to most effectively align the interests of stakeholder groups in Bangladesh and how to identify effective approaches to behavior change in a country where the rule of law has limited reach.

"It's a great example of the challenges of changing policy in an environment of weak governance," Kirby said. "Existing regulations are imperfectly enforced at best. So, to change behavior, you have to change the incentive structures."

Kirby's interviews with brick kiln owners, international NGOs and various environmental and community organizations will serve as the basis for a case study for a policy reform training program Fukuyama runs for mid-career public officials in developing countries.

Nina Brooks, a doctoral candidate, will talk with kiln owners to better understand what constraints decisions to adopt improved efficiency. The Stanford team is working with Greentech Knowledge Solutions, a Delhi-based leader in improving brick kiln efficiency.

Luby is approaching the climate community to help support the transformation of the brick kiln sector in Bangladesh and, ultimately, across South Asia. The improvements in efficiency will pay for themselves, but stakeholders will need support to achieve this more favorable equilibrium.

The research is supported by the Stanford Woods Institute's Environmental Venture Projects program and the Stanford Food Allergy Center Fund.