Making “Eight-Carat” Water Safe
As a child, Ana Maria Hagan lost a family friend to a dispute over fresh water in a refugee camp for Somalis in Kenya. For Hagan, this early experience drove home the importance of access to clean water.
Next year, as a Fulbright Fellow, Hagan will embark on a 10-month research project in Mongolia. She will be testing mercury contamination in water resulting from artisanal gold mining, where gold is extracted from solutions of 2-3 parts mercury to one part gold (8K gold), with the mercury unsafely discarded.
When Hagan came to URI in 2000, she settled on a civil and environmental engineering major. As a sophomore, she gained experience in international research through the International Engineering Program. “I did a small-scale water distribution study in Mexico thanks to a grant through the Office of the Provost,” she remembers. “It was such a boost of confidence; I got a taste of what it really takes to do international research. I graduated with the concept that if I continued following my dreams, I could contribute to the field and improve the quality of people’s lives.”
As the global price of gold reaches record highs, illegal artisanal gold mining is also increasing in Mongolia. Recent studies suggest serious health risks in mining communities with high blood-mercury levels. Hagan will research mercury exposure through water and treatment optimization for Mongolia’s cold climate. The findings will be used for completing her Ph.D. in environmental engineering science at the University of Florida.
In June, Hagan took an exploratory trip to Mongolia. She described finding a severely contaminated water source as bittersweet: “It’s great for my research, but horrible for people living nearby.
“I identified the problem through literature while I was half way across the world, but getting there and seeing it made it real. And the site I found is just one of hundreds.”
Hagan returns to Ulaanbaatar in February 2012. To follow her adventures, see her blog: http://8k-water.blogspot.com/.
—Bethany Vaccaro ’06