Baylor Helps Bring Clean Water to Mongolian Town; Works to Create Permanent Water Quality Lab

  • News Photo 4326
    Baylor University partners with Mongolian government officials to provide water quality assistance and humanitarian aid. Left to right: Brent Edwards, Mrs. Batdullam, Governor Khayankhirvaa, Dr. Rene Massengale, Michelle Nemec, and Stacy Pfluger. July, 2007
  • News Photo 4327
    Michelle Nemec interviewing Khongor villagers about their water and health. July, 2007
  • News Photo 4328
    Industrial site of chemical contamination in center of Khongor, Mongolia village
Nov. 26, 2007

by Frank Raczkiewicz

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. The percentage of households which have at least one person sick is roughly 70 percent of the town, 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," said Dr. Rene Massengale, 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. Their symptoms include skin rashes, severe headaches, seizures and liver problems among many others.

The Baylor study was commissioned by Mr. Khayankhirvaa, the State Governor of Darkhan, a region in northern Mongolia, Mr. Gunchin Luvsandorj, the Presidium President of the Darkhan Aimag, and Mrs. 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. Phase two of the project, which should begin in the summer, is a long-term environmental clean up, but problems still persist.

"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 said. "It creates some hurdles."

Strides are being taken by local officials to clean up the area and progress is being made. A few weeks ago, 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 the second phase gets underway, Massengale also hopes to set up a permanent Baylor in Mongolia program for students at Baylor and at the National University of Mongolia. The program would establish a permanent water quality laboratory in Khongor, where students could conduct applied research to identify the needs of area towns and then work to meet those needs by training local Mongolian students about water quality, health and sanitation.

"Baylor has a unique opportunity to do what I call vocational science - doing science that makes a difference globally," Massengale said. "In this particular area, we could impact quality of life, human health and encourage responsible use of the environment. Of course, all it takes is funding."

For more information, contact Dr. Massengale at (254) 710-2136.

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