Duke team works with Ghanaian partners to investigate health risks in auto repair industry
Growing up in Ghana, Fred Boadu loved to eat the ripe pineapples his grandmother brought from Asante Juaben, the town where he was born. “We kids were all fighting for them because they were so nice,” he recalls. Years later, on a return visit from the United States, he was disappointed to bite into a sour-tasting pineapple.
The seller mentioned that the farmers apply a lot of fertilizer to increase the yield of their crops. “I knew from the geology of the agricultural area that the bedrock is shallow and the land cover is very thin,” said Boadu, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Too much fertilizer could be a threat to groundwater.” This got him to think about the potential effects of these farming practices on the environment and the health of farmers and children, and he organized a DukeEngage summer project on nitrate contamination in drinking water supplies. .
In the United States, if you’re going to change your oil, you pay a premium to get it disposed of properly. In Ghana, there is no such thing.
More recently, he has looked into the problem of used motor oil, which is released into the ground in large quantities every year. “In the United States, if you change your oil, you pay a premium to get it disposed of properly, because the government and stakeholders are aware of the consequences,” Boadu explained. “In Ghana, there is no such thing.
The transportation sector is one of the main engines of the economy, Boadu noted. “There is a huge amount of old imported cars and other means of transportation everywhere. Because these are normally very old, they always break down. The vast industry of repairing these vehicles is a common career path for high school dropouts.
In the Ashanti region, near the city of Kumasi, a “village” of auto mechanics called Suame Magazine contains hundreds of auto repair shops. This village is one of over a thousand auto repair spaces in this region alone. The other nine regions of Ghana are also well supplied.
These people were at risk, so we had to find a way to assess them and help them afterwards.
Mechanics work without gloves and dispose of used engine oil by pouring it into the bare soil. The soil in this area has already been found with high levels of lead, chromium, iron and manganese. Boadu was worried about the impact on food and water, as well as what this direct exposure might do to the mechanics. “These people were in danger, so we had to find a way to assess them and help them afterwards. “
In 2016-17, he led a Bass Connections project with Dennis Clements in partnership with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana. As part of this one-year research project, Boadu and four students carried out sample collection and testing with their KNUST partners at Suame Magazine during the winter break. “Everyone had their own interests in the project and brought their own skills,” said Prathibha Juturu ’17, a major in environmental engineering.
The team spent time with the mechanics and took samples of hair, fingernails and fingernails as well as blood pressure, weight and height measurements. These samples were analyzed at KNUST’s central laboratory. “So far we have seen high levels of iron and chromium,” Boadu said. “High levels of iron have been linked to liver disease, cardiac arrest and diabetes, and high levels of chromium have been linked to cancer.” He noted that “the average blood pressure was very, very high.”
“We found that a lot of mechanics weren’t taking precautions,” said Jason Dinh ’18, major in environmental science. “They didn’t know that these used oils contained chemicals that could affect their health.
Awareness is the key. We need to find ways to educate them more about what they are getting into.
After the trip, the students analyzed and evaluated the data to explore any potential association between heavy metals in the samples and blood pressure. The data will form the basis of an education and awareness campaign, which Boadu hopes to lead through a DukeEngage project. “Awareness is the key,” Boadu said. “Mechanics are mostly high school dropouts, and we need to find ways to educate them more about what they’re getting into. He also wants to partner with researchers to design a practical approach to safely process used motor oil and resell it, thereby encouraging mechanics not to throw it away.
From an ethical standpoint, it is always good for students to use what they have learned to help others. And the students love it.
As an engineer, Boadu believes in using his knowledge to help society. In turn, the students share this responsibility. “From an ethical standpoint, it’s always good for students to use what they’ve learned to help other people,” he said, “no matter who they are. And the students love it.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had at Duke,” said Natalie Moszczynski ’18, a major in Global Health and History. “My trip to Ghana was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
Additional support for this project was provided by the Silver family Kenan Institute of Ethics Bass Connections Support Fund.