Clean-up Crew

February 28, 2008

A village in central Mongolia suffering from extensive water and environmental contamination may soon see better days ahead thanks to the work of Baylor University researchers.
Baylor researchers have completed one phase of the Baylor in Mongolia project, through which they have identified around 1,000 people in the small town of Khongor who have been become sick due to an environmental contamination from industrial mining. Roughly 70 percent of the town's households have at least one person sick, a crisis that has drawn attention from the World Health Organization.
"It is significant because Khongor is the first of perhaps many in this region with this same problem," says Dr. Rene Massengale, BA '93, MS '95, an assistant professor of biology at Baylor, who is leading the project. "This is a clear human rights and human health issue because these people were knowingly exposed, but never told about it. Baylor is now actively providing assistance and responding to this emergency situation by partnering with organizations to provide workable solutions."
Massengale's study marked the first comprehensive independent environmental look at the problem in Mongolia, the northern Asian country between China and Russia. The Baylor study found residents had been exposed for more than a year to toxic levels of cyanide, mercury and heavy metals like arsenic due to multiple environmental spills by legal and illegal mining companies searching for gold in the soil. The residents' symptoms include skin rashes, severe headaches, seizures and liver problems, among many others.
The Baylor study was commissioned by Khayankhirvaa Damdin, the State Governor of Darkhan, a region in northern Mongolia, Gunchin Luvsandorj, the Presidium President of the Darkhan Aimag, and Batdulam Jambadoo, the Foreign Affairs Officer for the Darkhan Aimag and special assistant to the State Governor of Darkhan, after they toured Baylor in 2006. Massengale acted as one of their Baylor tour guides during the visit and, after learning of her line of research work, the dignitaries formally asked Massengale to lead a water quality study in Khongor.
Massengale and her team are now partnering with local government leaders in Mongolia and two non-profit organizations--Lifeqwest Mongolia and Texas Baptist Men--to bring immediate medical supplies and individual home water purifying equipment to Khongor. Massengale said those supplies should provide a short-term fix to the problem. A possible second phase of the project is a long-term environmental clean up to address persisting issues.
"The same company that manages the water, heat and sewer for the town also owns the building where most of the contamination is located and leases it to the illegal miners," Massengale says. "It creates some hurdles."
Local officials are taking action to clean up the area, and progress is being made. Massengale ran more than 2,400 tests on soil and water samples in the village. The tests indicated that levels of cyanide and mercury have improved in many wells; however, there were still a few wells with elevated levels of these contaminants. There also was significant contamination of the soil and the building where the illegal mining took place. Massengale said the contaminated soil is leaching toxic chemicals into the surrounding area and remains a health hazard to the community.
As talks continue with Baylor's partners in the project, Massengale says that plans for future Baylor work in Mongolia are being considered. 
"Baylor has a unique opportunity to do what I call vocational science--doing science that makes a difference globally," Massengale says. "In this particular area, we could impact quality of life and human health and encourage responsible use of the environment. Of course, all it takes is funding."