Smith ’11 Dives into a Dirty Situation

Thursday, May 19, 2011 - 16:45

Boston’s Charles River may have become musically infamous thanks to the Standells song, “Dirty Water,” but as Lauren Wooten Smith ’11 can tell you, the once-polluted Charles has nothing on Georgia’s Savannah River.

Smith first waded—research-wise—into the Savannah six years ago for a high school science fair project. She was inspired by a 2005 Savannah Riverkeeper study of heavy metal levels in a section of river near a waste-water treatment plant. Surprisingly, that investigation found higher mercury levels upstream from the plant, and Smith wanted to know why.

After examining the daily discharge records of upstream industries, Smith hypothesized that the Olin Corporation’s Augusta chlor-alkali plant was the answer. It wasn’t the plant’s production of chlorine and alkali that was the problem, but the outdated mercury cell process that Olin was using. Because mercury is highly volatile, small amounts of the neurotoxin, which poses especially severe threats to fetuses, breastfeeding babies, and young children, can escape during the mercury cell process (source: GreenFacts).

Those environmental concerns were already well known by the time Smith was conducting her research. In fact, Japan had banned mercury cell technology in 1954, and in 2006, then U.S. Senator Barack Obama sponsored a bill that would have required American chlor-alkali factories to convert to cleaner processes or shut down by 2012. The bill never passed.

Despite the warning signs, Smith’s results were still shocking. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a mercury level of 500 ppb (parts per billion) is lethal to all aquatic life, meaning the 62,000 ppb she recorded from Olin’s outfall channel was more than 100 times the lethal limit.

Smith’s project won second place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and as part of the award, an asteroid was named after her. But the real prize was having the Georgia Environmental Protection Division mandate a cleanup plan, which required Olin to dam up its drainage canal to prevent the spread of mercury sediment.

But after visiting the river on a number of occasions since those changes were made, Smith believes the cleanup plan was inadequate.

“It didn’t collect the mercury pollution, nor did it stop future contamination,” Smith said. “In addition, the plant was continuing to use mercury-cell technology, which was the source of the problem.”

By then, this had become more than an academic exercise for Smith; she felt the plant was a public health risk to the local population that was regularly eating fish from the river. Their unhealthy diet was a result of several factors. One was simple economics: these were subsistence fishermen who were relying on what they caught as an inexpensive food supply. Another issue stemmed from the state of Georgia’s fish advisory campaign. Smith said mercury contamination warnings were not posted at the river site, but primarily issued online--where they were inaccessible to many local anglers, who had no Internet access or were unaware of where to find the advisories online.

In response, Smith decided to conduct a new phase of mercury contamination research for her senior thesis at Mount Holyoke, in which she measured the impact on humans. Over winter break, she went back to the Savannah River to collect hair samples from any local anglers who were willing to provide them.

“Lauren is committed to a holistic intellectual approach to real-life problems, because she knows that the cultural understandings of mercury contamination are as important as scientific documentation of mercury levels in aquatic organisms,” said Smith’s thesis advisor, Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology Lynn Morgan. “She is determined that the anglers and their families should be the ultimate benefactors of her research.”

Smith has found elevated levels of mercury in the anglers’ hair, but says her results are inconclusive at this point because of the relatively small sample size. However, she has collected enough data to prove one thing: Local anglers are largely unaware of the health risks of eating fish from the river.

Fortunately, Smith’s research is starting to make local residents more aware of the Savannah River’s extreme mercury contamination--and soon a nationwide audience will be, too. The CBS Evening News is profiling Smith for an upcoming feature that will air in early summer.

The Olin Corporation, meanwhile, recently announced that it would stop the chlor-alkali process at its Augusta plant within two years and use it instead for packaging and distributing chlorine and caustic soda coming from another of its plants in Charleston, Tennessee, that will be converted to mercury-free cell technology.

That’s good news for Smith, but she stresses that it’s just a start. “Even though the Augusta plant is going to be a non-mercury plant, it is still getting a lot of mercury in the environment, and there’s still a lot there,” she said. “So, stopping that from happening is what’s really important.”

As she prepares to graduate from Mount Holyoke, Smith continues to press for proper site cleanup, but she’s about to take a break from her Georgia research. She’ll soon be traveling to Bangladesh, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, to study neonatal nutrition with a specific focus on breastfeeding practices there.

“I think in many ways, my work in Bangladesh is really a continuation of the work I’ve done with Savannah River anglers,” Smith said. “While the communities differ, the work is still community-based nutritional research, and I’m attempting to understand the complex processes that need to be understood in order to improve health. That’s the next step for me, but my work definitely does not end here.”