Hausermann and Team Win NSF Grant To Study Gold Mining in Ghana

September 1, 2023
Josh Zaffos

Associate Professor Heidi Hausermann (second from left) and Dr. Emmanuel Effah, University of Mines and Technology, Ghana (left), Bernadette Atosona, PhD student at University of Ghana (third from left), and another colleague speak with a hard rock miner about mercury use in northern Ghana (Image courtesy Hausermann)

Associate Professor of Geography Heidi Hausermann and colleagues have won a $1.537 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the health, social, and environmental effects of rapidly expanding, small-scale gold mining and mercury pollution in Ghana and beyond. The award, which will fund a five-year research project, marks the first NSF Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems (DISES) grant led by a CSU researcher. 

DISES grants offer a really unique opportunity to unpack human-environment relationships, and they are very competitive,” says Hausermann, the grant’s primary investigator. “Most people have to apply several times before they are successful, so we were not at all expecting to get this on a first go.” 

The grant and project include collaborators from Michigan State University, Harvard University, University of Iowa, and University of Mines and Technology, Ghana. 

21st Century Gold Rush 

Small-scale and artisanal mining encompasses more informal mining operations, which can be individuals or companies, typically working on small concessions (25 acres). The practice might sound low-impact but small-scale mining uses heavy equipment and toxic, elemental mercury to amalgate gold from mineral deposits and sands. In Ghana and elsewhere, miners will mix elemental liquid mercury with gold deposits and then burn off the mercury using kerosene torches to separate out the gold. The toxic gases can move into the air and atmosphere but also settle into land and water, making the consequences scattered and insidious – especially during boom times.  

Following the 2008 financial crisis, gold prices skyrocketed and small-scale mining expanded around the world, particularly in mineral-rich countries in Asia, South America, and Africa, such as Ghana – formerly a British colony called Gold Coast. New waves of foreign mining investment and activity bring economic opportunity but also new health and environmental problems in rural communities. 

Hausermann first traveled to Ghana as a postdoctoral researcher, amid the latest gold rush, as part of a project studying the emergence of a necrotizing skin disease called Buruli ulcer in mining areas. Hausermann completed ethnographic interviews over 2 years to better understand the spatial dynamics of the disease. Through interviews with rural community members, she realized Buruli ulcer was just one consequence among more widespread and mostly un-reported and underreported mining impacts affecting many more people – including illnesses and environmental losses potentially tied to mercury pollution. 

She expanded her own research in Ghana to study the political and economic factors driving mining and its pollution legacy in rural areas. She also began assembling an interdisciplinary team that could collectively assess the geographic and biogeochemical dimensions of mercury emissions and their impacts. 

Mercury Rising as Critical Threat 

Small-scale mining is now recognized as the number-one emitter of atmospheric mercury around the world. Mercury pollution is especially alarming for public health and the environment. Mercury is highly toxic and can cause brain bleeding and acute illness from direct or continued contact, but it is also persistent and bio-accumulative, meaning it builds up in human bodies through meat and plants we eat and can last in the environment for decades. Mercury exposure has been linked to a range of neurological, cardiovascular and other illnesses as well as stunted fetal development and developmental delays and disorders. 

Jacqueline Gerson, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University (Image courtesy Gerson)

“We know artisanal and small-scale gold mining represent the largest source of mercury pollution globally,” says Jacqueline Gerson, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University who studies biogeochemistry and a member of the NSF DISES grant team. “Yet, we know less about what happens to this mercury once it is released – does it remain in the local or regional environment, posing risk to local and national communities or does it enter the global mercury pool where it can be deposited in countries far from its source.”  

Gerson’s previous studies in the Peruvian Amazon showed high levels of atmospheric mercury in forests near mining areas suggesting pollution doesn’t just move off into the air and away from local areas. A main question for Hausermann, Gerson, and their team is whether vegetation in Ghana – particularly commonly grown crops such as cocoyam, plantain, and maize – also absorb high levels of mercury and what environmental conditions are promoting this accumulation of mercury, as a result.

Seeking Answers for Rural Communities 

The DISES grant, titled, “Investigating mercury biogeochemical cycling via mixed-methods in complex artisanal gold mining landscapes and implications for community health,” will support five years of research to help answer that looming question through socioeconomic, environmental, and biogeochemical studies and modeling.  

“Geographers are taught to think about human-environment systems and interactions, and a lot of us are also trained in mixed [quantitative and qualitative study] methods,” Hausermann says. “So, we understand social and ecological methods and how they work together, but this project will also produce maps of mercury risk on the landscape, so it’s also very spatial work.” 

Gerson will lead efforts to sample crops, soil, and water and set up passive air samplers at three sites with different climates and levels of mining activity across Ghana to better understand how elemental mercury moves through the air, ground, and waterways from mining areas. Elsie Sunderland, Professor of Environmental Chemistry at Harvard, will complement Gerson’s work and lead efforts to model biogeochemical pathways of mercury pollution. By measuring and tracing mercury levels found in crops grown across the country, the team can also see how different environmental factors influence plants’ uptake of mercury. The researchers also plan to map just how far atmospheric mercury from mining is spreading from source areas.

We want to understand what environmental conditions are promoting mercury accumulation in foodstuff, in this case, local agriculture, and what foods are higher levels than others,” Gerson says. “Our goal is not to criminalize artisanal or small-scale mining – which is an important livelihood for many people – nor to change local diets. It is to inform better decision-making about where people are mining and growing foods as well as to improve global mercury atmospheric models.” 

Three research colleagues
Bernadette Atosona, PhD student at University of Ghana, Associate Professor Heidi Hausermann, and Dr. Emmanuel Effah, University of Mines and Technology, Ghana.

Hausermann will continue her data collection through interviews and surveys in rural communities, identifying miners’ practices and use of elemental mercury, tallying reports of illness and environmental loss, and assessing knowledge and perceptions of the risks of mercury pollution. “I suspect miners understand risks of handling mercury directly because they feel it and have described headaches, insomnia, and other symptoms after using mercury in the past,” she says. “But I expect family members, women and others to know less, and miners might not know that family members or neighbors can be exposed to mercury. People want to live in healthy environments and keep their families safe, and we’re looking forward to starting a conversation about how to limit mercury exposure in these communities.”

Other members of the grant team include Bernadette Atosona, an environmental science Ph.D. student at University of Ghana, has worked with Hausermann since 2010 and brings experience and knowledge with environmental chemistry and qualitative research methods. Richard Amankwah and Emmanuel Effah, of University of Mines and Technology in Tarkwa, Ghana, are experts on the country’s mining history and current operations. Edith Parker, Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, is a community-health expert. 

Teamwork really does make the dream work when it comes to interdisciplinary research,” Hausermann says. “No one has all the skills or knowledge to do something like this alone, so we really have to bring our ideas to the table while being open about ethics, change, and innovation. It’s the perfect team for this. 

“It’s exciting because it has the potential to make some big contributions to our understanding of where mercury goes,” Hausermann adds, “and how it may put rural people – who have already been burdened with other impacts of mining – most at risk.”