Kenneth Banks is no stranger to spearheading large-scale projects. The founder and president of the multi-million dollar Banks Contracting Co., Banks grew the small company into a construction and real estate development giant. So when researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health summoned his expertise in tackling a worldwide health issue, Banks put his boots on the ground in a three-week trek through the Puno region of Peru. Along with other board members of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Banks reviewed ongoing research initiatives in the area. As villagers went about their day-to-day activities, with women preparing meals for their families, Banks and his colleagues witnessed the makings of a public health crisis.
“We walked into these small thatched huts and adobe homes. [A woman] would be cooking in the middle of the floor, often using cow dung [for heat and fuel],” Banks says, noting that the highly-flammable dung patties – more easily accessible than firewood and other heating elements – generated thick clouds of smoke inside the household. “The family was somewhat used to it, but their eyes were watering. It was hard to breathe. I knew that there had to be a significant amount of respiratory diseases [in these communities] from breathing the air in this environment.”
Banks’ observations were not without merit. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released findings of its 2012 research data, noting that of the seven million people who die each year from exposure to air pollution, more than half of those deaths (4.3 million) is caused by indoor air pollutants. High levels of particulate matter, including dust, smoke, soot, and liquid droplets, often settle into the lungs of those in close proximity, resulting in high incidences of lung cancer, acute respiratory disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But perhaps the most surprising health impact of household air pollution is the percentage of associated deaths from heart disease (26 percent) and stroke (34 percent). A series of epidemiological studies have substantiated the link between indoor air pollution and cardiovascular and neurological ailments. Environmental experts liken indoor open-fire cooking to burning 400 cigarettes within the span of an hour.
“Can you imagine living like this? This is their daily living experience. Two or three times a day, as often as they cook,” Banks says. “The woman was cooking approximately six or seven feet away from me, and I couldn’t see her through the smoke.”
This past February, Banks made his second visit to Peru, developing a strategy to provide adequate ventilation systems in huts and thatched adobes. Banks’ construction and engineering insights offer a blueprint for an inexpensive and accessible means to reduce the smoke levels in these homes. The completed project will extend past Peru to developing countries all over the world, including regions of India, China, and Africa. The implications are more than health-related; these ventilation systems may provide a much-needed economic boost for the billions who reside in unindustrialized nations.
“A team will go into these areas and teach people how to make and install these chimneys in the field with simple hand tools. There’s the opportunity to pay [local builders] a couple of dollars for their work, creating a micro-economy,” Banks says.
Banks’ travels to Peru and other locales (the only continent he has yet to visit is Antarctica, he says) have taken him a world away from where he came of age – within a two-mile radius in Yonkers, New York. “I grew up in modest circumstances, and a lot of my friends were unable to make it out of those situations. But luckily, I was able to get a track scholarship and an academic scholarship,” says the 1974 Adelphi University graduate and member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
In 1980, he launched Banks Contracting, a construction services and real estate development firm now based in Baltimore. Banks has overseen the construction of the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel as well as buildings at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
“I was able to get an education, travel, see different things, and meet different people. Many of the kids I meet nowadays don’t see anything other than their blocks. I try as much as I can not only to help those in those situations, but to hire. I’ve hired hundreds of people throughout my career to help them get a start in life, and some now have their own companies,” he says.
In addition to sitting on the board of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Banks was recently appointed the board of visitors for the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center. In 2009, Banks chaired the American Heart Association gala in Baltimore. “Heart attack and stroke [are among the leading causes of death] of people in this country,” he says, recognizing that the conditions also affect communities the world over.
“[When you’re sick,] nothing else is important. Looking at some of the boards I’m on, you’ll see that I’m very focused on health,” says Banks, who – at 62 years old – exercises daily and counts skydiving, scuba diving, and skiing among his hobbies. “I want to lead by example. I’m working out, lifting weights, and doing yoga. I’m always telling people, ‘Come with me!’ For the next phase of my life, I want to be the example, especially for African Americans who have health issues.”
As he moves forward with the initiative to improve household ventilation systems in developing countries, Banks’ focus on global public health is simply an extension of his personal and philanthropic mission. “I’ve determined that in my life, I’m going to do as much as I can for as long as I can do it.” He hopes to help offer that opportunity to others on the planet. “I want to do the best I can to make this world a little bit better for people. That’s my vision.”
This article was published on EBONY.com on April 1, 2014.