Hard Science and a Mine

Hard Science and a Mine

Despite their determination to steer clear of politics, SPH researchers Howard Hu and Niladri Basu found themselves mired in controversy when they set out to investigate reports of mysterious health symptoms near a gold and silver mine in western Guatemala.

When Howard Hu took a phone call from Susannah Sirkin, associate director of Physicians for Human Rights, he thought it was just a social call from an old friend. But Sirkin was calling to ask him for help.

PHR had been asked to investigate possible human rights abuses against the Mam Mayan—indigenous people living in western Guatemala—who were experiencing mysterious skin rashes, hair loss, and respiratory problems. The people believed these symptoms were caused by exposure to toxic metals and chemicals from a large gold and silver mine in the area.

Sirkin knew that Hu’s background and research on the health consequences of mining made him the perfect person to lead the investigation. Could he send a research team to Guatemala as soon as possible? And could he find money to pay the expenses himself?

“It’s typical for PHR,” says Hu, a physician and professor of environmental health and epidemiology in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and professor of internal medicine in the UM Medical School. “There’s never a big budget or lots of time. It’s usually like, ‘Can you go next week?’ That’s part of the excitement of working on something like this.”

Hu told Sirkin he’d “figure out a way to do this.” But he knew it wouldn’t be easy. As the new chair of the SPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Hu was responsible for managing a department and recruiting new faculty. Not to mention being the father of a three-year-old, with a wife whose job required extensive travel. “I wasn’t in a position to leave for ten days,” Hu says. “I knew I couldn’t do this without a partner.”

Hu turned to Niladri Basu, the new assistant professor he had just recruited from Environment Canada—a governmental organization that helps protect the environment and implement the Canadian government’s environmental agenda. “I thought Nil was the perfect person to work on this,” Hu says. “He did research on metals and specialized in the effects of environmental and ecologic toxicology on wildlife. His background combined well with my background in the effects of the environment on human health.”

Basu was intrigued. “I had some experience studying how environmental stressors affect the health of indigenous populations, and I felt the study would enable me to collect sound data and increase my understanding of environmental health issues in indigenous communities,” he says. “The Guatemala study was a great opportunity.”

In the highlands of western Guatemala, the Mam Mayan’s agrarian lifestyle ended abruptly in 2005 when work crews began blasting open the mountains near their farms and villages. Vague rumors had been swirling for years through Mam Mayan villages about secret purchases of land in the area, but no one knew the buyer was a multinational mining company called Goldcorp, Inc.

The company bought the land to open the Marlin mine, which today is the largest and most profitable gold and silver mine in Central America. The mine produces about 250,000 ounces of gold and more than three million ounces of silver each year. Its two-square-mile area includes an under- ground mine, two open pit mines, and several tailings ponds that contain mercury, lead, cyanide, and other toxic metals and chemicals used in the mining process.

Ever since the mine opened in 2005, it has been the focus of protests and demonstrations by local residents and by Guatemalan environmental organizations. Its presence has split the Mam Mayan community into opposing factions.

On one side are pro-mining advocates led by company representatives and village leaders who maintain the mine is safe and brings jobs, tax revenue, new roads, clinics, and schools to a formerly impoverished area.

On the other side are Mam Mayan residents who don’t want the mine and claim they were never consulted about it. They maintain the mine is destroying a pristine environment, polluting their water, affecting their health, and threatening their traditional way of life.

“There is a history of mistrust between the community, the company, and the government,” Hu says.“The mine owners have studies they believe indicate the mine is safe, but the validity and objectivity of such research has been questioned.”

With only a few months to design and organize the research study, both scientists were determined to conduct an impartial investigation, stay focused on the science, and steer clear of the politics on both sides of the controversy.

Exposure to toxic metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead may cause the skin rashes, respiratory problems, and hair loss described by the Mam Mayan residents, so the researchers needed to measure levels of toxic metals in the local environment and in the bodies of people living in the area.

Basu and Hu decided to focus on three research questions:

  • Did mine workers have higher levels of metals in their bodies than people who did not work in the mine?
  • Did levels of metals in people and the environment vary depending on their distance from the mine?
  • Did people with health problems have higher levels of metals in their bodies than those who were healthy?

Once the study proposal was complete, the researchers submitted it for approval by the UM’s Institutional Review Board—the committee responsible for protecting the rights and safety of human research subjects. Then they scrambled to select the rest of the study team and make all the arrangements required for eight days of field research in another country.

On August 17, 2009, Basu was on a plane to Guatemala accompanied by Marce Abare, a UM medical student who volunteered to be part of the study. Unlike Basu, Abare spoke Spanish and had worked in Guatemala before. En route to Guatemala, they met the third member of their team – Stefan Schmitt, a director of forensics for Physicians for Human Rights.

Once on the ground, Basu, Schmitt, and Abare encountered levels of mistrust, anger, suspicion and intimidation greater than anything they had anticipated.

Basu believed the research team had been invited to visit four villages near the mine, but it quickly became obvious that some community leaders were not happy to see them. One village council told the UM team to get out of town. Local residents were willing to attend public meetings to learn about the study, but hesitant to participate. The team found just 23 people who were willing to volunteer for interviews and provide blood, urine, and hair samples.

“There was a lot of concern that if someone was found speaking with us, they might suffer some ill consequences from that—anything from having a poor reputation to losing your job to death,” says Basu. “Guatemala has a long history of human rights violations, and people who protested the mine before had died under mysterious circumstances. So there was reason to worry.”

The researchers went to extraordinary lengths to protect the identities of the 23 individuals who agreed to participate in the study. They met them in private homes in the middle of the night or in local churches following mass. To interview one study participant, they walked for 30 minutes and scaled a cliff to meet the person in the middle of a coffee plantation. In addition to blood, urine, and hair samples from study participants, the researchers collected soil and water samples from rivers, streams, and drinking-water wells upstream and downstream from the mine to test for toxic metals.

Months later, after the samples were analyzed and the study data compiled, Basu and Hu found they had mixed results. With such a small number of participants, the sample size was too small to produce definitive results, but the data indicated there was cause for concern.

“Essentially, we had something for everyone,” Hu says. “We couldn’t connect the symptoms [reported by residents] with measureable exposure to metals, but there was evidence the mine was resulting in exposures with potential toxic implications. Essentially, what we did was narrow the range of uncertainty to dispel the worst and the most optimistic myths about the mine. Our conclusion was that we need more monitoring and surveillance to find out what’s really going on.”

Before their final report was released in May 2010, Basu returned to Guatemala with representatives from PHR to present their results to the Mam Mayan residents. “It was important to us to disseminate the results to the people and hear their thoughts and concerns before the whole world heard about them,” explains Basu.

They organized a meeting in one central village, and more than 100 people showed up, according to Basu. A local parish church arranged to broadcast the event live on radio, but 15 minutes before the presentation started, the power went out—something Basu still isn’t sure was coincidence or another attempt by local officials to interfere with the study.

“The reaction of the people was all over the place,” says Basu. “Some people were just confused as to why we have chemicals in our bodies. A lot of people wanted us to project our results into something bigger and grander: This is really, really bad, and we’re all going to die. But we didn’t bite on that. I told them that, as a scientist, I came into this because there were concerns about human rights abuses from chemicals in the environment,” says Basu. “I said we found some evidence, but we need more data and recommended they push for a larger study to be done.”

When PHR issued a press release with the scientific report, the UM researchers found themselves in the middle of an international incident. Media outlets in Guatemala jumped on the story. “Toxic metals contaminate vicinity of mine,” was the (translated) front-page headline on May 19 in Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s major newspaper.

The Organization of American States issued a formal request to Guatemala’s president asking that mine operations be suspended, and Hu and Basu were summoned to Guatemala City to present the study results in person to Rafael Espada, the country’s vice president and a former cardiothoracic surgeon from Houston, Texas.

“He wanted to meet us to figure out who we were and whether we were credible,” says Hu. “By the end of the meeting, I think he felt we were objective and it added weight to the government’s decision to do something about the mine.”

After a few weeks, Guatemalan government officials called for a suspension of mine operations until more definitive studies could be completed. Goldcorp officials ignored the government’s request and issued a press release declaring that the “environmental allegations are entirely without merit.”

Today, the Marlin mine is still operating, and the company is prospecting other sites in the area. Basu worries that Marlin mine #1 could be just the beginning. If the company opens more mines, Basu says the stress on the Mam Mayan and their way of life will escalate.

“Mayans see mountains as God,” explains Basu. “Here we have the mountains they revere being ripped apart within a few miles of their house. Things are being blown up; there’s a lot of dust in the air and stories going around. Some people are benefitting from the mine, while others are not. There are a lot of reasons to be concerned, and it’s very stressful.”

Would they go back to Guatemala to conduct a more definitive study? Hu and Basu aren’t so sure. “In a situation as politically volatile as this, any follow-up investigation has to be transparent and driven by the wishes of the people on the ground,” says Hu.

In spite of it all, Hu remains positive about the experience and the role scientists can play in controversial public health issues. “In situations like this where there’s urgency and differences of opinion and conflict about the ground reality, good science is even more important, but people have to trust it. It requires a lot of investment in the science, the transparency and the process to make it work.” <

Article by Sally Pobojewski

UM SPH Professor Niladri Basu in Guatemala...

...with Stefan Schmitt surveying.

soccer field
...collecting soil samples on a school playground.

...with a Guatemalan newspaper announcing the reserch team's findings.