Chemistry, Biology Students to Travel to Ecuador to Develop Mercury Hot Spot Map


Chemistry and biology students, along with Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Kevin Drace and Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Adam Kiefer, will travel to Portovelo, Ecuador, this summer as part of Mercer On Mission to develop a map highlighting mercury hot spots created by artisanal mining and the industry’s processing plants.

Artisanal miners use toxic elemental mercury to extract gold from crushed rock. Mercury is mixed with the powdered rock to amalgamate the gold, and the gold/mercury mixture is “burned” (heated), spreading the mercury into miners’ lungs and throughout the environment. The mercury is highly persistent and contaminates the soil, water and air. It also enters the food chain and bioaccumulates in miners and their family members.

Portovelo has unacceptably high concentrations of mercury surrounding its gold processing sites. The proposed map will highlight the hot spots of mercury contamination in the air and soil and serve as a resource for government and processing plant officials. Additionally, the Mercer On Mission team will determine the amount of mercury emitted by the plants, which will give them a baseline of contamination and will allow them to monitor the human and environmental exposure to mercury.

artisanalmining-02This Mercer On Mission trip is preceded by two trips to the province of Manica in Mozambique, Africa (2010 and 2011), where 18 students, Dr. Drace and Dr. Kiefer explored the science involved in artisanal mining. The research gathered from those trips resulted in two peer-reviewed publications in Journal of Cleaner Production with 11 student coauthors, numerous student poster presentations, and lectures at local, national and international meetings.

The group traveling to Ecuador will follow up on those manuscripts regarding the chemistry of amalgamation (mixing mercury and gold). “Understanding the fundamental chemistry of the mining process will hopefully allow us to develop new and inexpensive technologies to limit emissions of mercury on a global scale,” Dr. Kiefer said.

Additionally, Dr. Drace’s research group is currently identifying mercury resistant bacteria and testing for increased antibiotic resistance. Evidence suggests that closely linked antibiotic resistance genes are shared among the same bacteria that acquire mercury resistance genes. Dr. Drace’s group is continuing to monitor the potential danger posed by antibiotic resistance pathogens increasing in number due to inappropriate mercury use.