By Hiroko Sato
LOWELL -- Many of the survivors of the 1984 gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, have never seen the disaster's aftermath.
Methyl isocyanate, the main ingredient of the poisonous cloud that spewed from the plant's tank, burned the lungs and the eyes of city residents as they slept, quickly killing 2,500, Kenneth Geiser said. And many of the 25,000 others injured were left blind.
While visiting Bhopal several months after the tragedy, Geiser, who then taught environmental policy at Tufts University, sat with survivors. Geiser said victims asked him to do one thing: Go back to the U.S. and make sure a similar accident never happens again.
"At that time, I decided to use my life to make our society safer from hazardous waste," Geiser said.
Geiser's promise to Bhopal residents would eventually take the Arizona native to UMass Lowell, an international hub for study of the industrial impact on the environment and human health. There, he headed the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, or TURI, which was founded as a result of the state toxics-use reduction act of 1989, a law Geiser helped write.
Working with activists and corporate leaders, he has helped design various initiatives to eliminate the use of the most dangerous chemicals in factories and shops. He has advised the United Nations and companies around the world, from the U.S. to China, on eliminating pollutants, and continues to promote so-called "green chemistry," which factors environmental safety into the equation.
And now, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has recognized Geiser for his lifelong dedication to the cause by presenting him with its Environmental Merit Award.
Describing him "a champion of chemicals policy in the U.S. and abroad," agency officials honored the 68-year-old UMass Lowell professor of work environment at a recent award ceremony in Boston.
Geiser, who also serves as a co-director of the Center for Sustainable Production at the university, said the award makes him proud of his body of work.
He's not alone in that pride.
"He is one of the most solution-oriented people I've ever met," Paul Morse, director of The New England Consortium, said of Geiser. (The consortium also picked up one of the 24 Environmental Merit Awards the EPA gave.)
Morse described Geiser as an "inclusive and collaborative" scholar who tries to make everyone around him part of the solution.
"He is one of the people who enjoys the work he does," Morse said. "He is always so committed to it."
Morse and Craig Slatin, a UMass professor who serves as the principal investigator for The New England Consortium, said the awards that Geiser and the consortium received reflect positively on the reputation of UMass Lowell as one of the world's finest institutions in the field.
"It's wonderful to be recognized for the good work" that the university has done, Slatin said.
One of 20 national programs administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the consortium provides training to all kinds of professionals who deal with hazardous chemicals, ranging from firefighters to lab scientists to trucking-industry workers.
Since its inception 25 years ago, the consortium has trained 27,000 people in how to stay safe, according to Morse.
In the meantime, TURI has trained countless companies in Massachusetts on how to reduce toxics use. The Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act of 1989 requires companies to report the use of certain chemicals in excess of specified amounts, and file plans for use reduction with the Department of Environmental Protection.
The law does not require companies to follow federal plans, a compromise Geiser and other writers of the act made with industries. Geiser said companies indicated they would plan on doing only so much if they knew they would have to do it. If they could modify their practices at their own pace, they said, they would come up with more effective plans.
And that proved to be true, Geiser said. Between 1989 and 2007, industrial use of 191 different chemicals that the state has identified as "most dangerous" has declined by 41 percent in Massachusetts. That is partly because companies realized, while writing plans and implementing some changes, that they did not have to use the most toxic chemicals to make their products and that changing materials often helped them save money.
"We want people to think about things," Geiser said.
Geiser said he has tried to act as a bridge between activists and industries throughout his career.
Activists often identify problems correctly but fail to understand the difficulty proving the direct connection between toxics found at certain sites and health problems among residents, he said. So instead of going after companies for causing illnesses, Geiser and some others decided to write a law that would help stop problems before they begin.
In the 1980s, the public became increasingly interested in environmental safety amid news reports about toxic waste, including the Woburn water-contamination case that later inspired the film A Civil Action, Geiser said.
Still, corporations were resistant to changes.
Geiser said the key to successfully bringing about change is "persistence, staying with it."
Geiser, who has a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of California Berkeley, as well as a master's in urban studies and a Ph.D. in science and technology policy from MIT, lives in Somerville and owns a farm in Sumner, Maine. He uses his lifelong experience to help prevent pollution across the world.
In China, the pressure that suppliers feel from environmentally conscious clients in the U.S. to be green is making a difference, Geiser said. But the U.S. still has much room for improvement, and even Massachusetts, which he calls a "leading state in the U.S." in industrial-chemical use reduction, is "not as far along as Europe."