Raising Awareness about Contaminated Water in Ghana

Two years ago, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Fred Boadu made an unexpected discovery while mapping the geology in his home country of Ghana. The fractured bedrock beneath villages there allow nitrates from fertilizers to seep down into the groundwater, which is then pumped through boreholes for domestic use. Local farmers depend on the fertilizers to boost their yields of pineapples, which provide the locals' sole income. "The [nitrate-contaminated] water looks very clear, like bottled water, and it tastes OK too," Boadu said. "Nonetheless, infants and kids are dying and adults are getting sick." Nitrates are by themselves benign, but are easily converted to hazardous nitrites by bacteria in the body, he explained. Those nitrites bind to hemoglobin in the bloodstream, impairing its capacity to transport oxygen. In infants, who are the most susceptible, the condition is known as blue baby syndrome. In adults, the nitrate exposure can also lead to stomach and colon cancer. In an effort to raise awareness about the problem and to begin looking for possible solutions, Boadu enlisted Pratt undergraduate Natalia Rossiter-Thornton, a senior CEE major, to spend three weeks in Ghana last summer. They traveled to two villages informing people about the contamination of their water supply and gathering information about their farming practices as well.

"Natalia did all the talking and briefings," said Boadu. "When it comes from someone from outside the tradition or culture, it's a different ball game. They think 'if she's come all this way to tell us something, it must be true.'" "I was something of a novelty in Ghana, and I did feel that people were willing to listen," Rossiter-Thornton said. "For the most part, I was asking them about their farming practices, how they use the fertilizer and when and how they put it on." In the process she discovered just how different the world can be, she said. "They sometimes put the fertilizer on with their bare hands," she said. "One man had scars from chemical burns." Seemingly simple questions, like exactly what is in the fertilizer and where it comes from also proved all but impossible to answer. "If there are no labels on the fertilizer, they don't know what's in it. No one knows where it came from. It's not uniform. Here in the U.S., we would look to the government to subsidize or organize." But in Ghana, that's not how things work, despite the fact that Boadu has found nitrate levels in the groundwater that exceed by three to four times the allowable limit set by the World Health Organization. While much work remains to improve water quality and protect the Ghanaian people, Boadu and Rossiter-Thornton did offer the local villagers some useful advice about how to begin addressing the problem now. "Increasing the awareness among people in Ghana is an important first step," Boadu said. "They can collect drinking water from streams for now, at least for children." They also recommended that farmers use less fertilizer—in an amount closer to the soil's capacity--and ensure that women and children aren't exposed directly to the chemicals. Boadu said he is exploring ways for Duke students to continue working on the water quality problems there, particularly the education and awareness issues, perhaps through a new DukeEngage program or other student organization.