Eighteen Georgia College biology and environmental science students are traveling to a former mining area in Zambia—dubbed by media as “the world’s most toxic town.” There, they’ll finish work begun two years ago on a cement-and-brick wall to reduce contaminated dust in a schoolyard where children play.
“It made me realize, it’s time we started doing something,” he said, “This is an opportunity for us to give back.”
Mutiti hopes the wall will block wind gusts, reducing children’s exposure to toxic dust at the David Ramushu Combined School in Kabwe. Months of dry season in that central-southern region of Africa are followed by windy months. Children play in dirt fields, breathing in air particles laden with heavy metals like lead, cadmium, zinc and arsenic.
The pre-K through 12th-grade school is located near an old mine, which operated nearly 100 years before shutting down in the 1990s. Soil lead levels at the playground contain over 6,000 parts per million (ppm) – much higher than the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is no more than 400 ppm, Mutiti said. Lead causes neurological problems, brain damage and lowered IQ in children. In pregnant women, it can cause anemia and miscarriages.
“That’s why I figured, if we can just make improvements at the school, it will show that we actually care. That we don’t just care about the science,” Mutiti said.
Mutiti’s trying to raise $12,000 to finish the school project. He ran out of funding two years ago with only one-third of the 8-foot wall completed. They raised $4,000 back then but need an additional $7,000 to complete the wall and gate—plus, another $5,000 to plant grass.
This year, Mutiti intends to match up to $2,500 in donations with his own money.
“My goal is to eventually finish it,” he said. “However long it takes, I’ll keep trying. The project’s had a lot of interest. We’ve gotten positive feedback from people at the school and in the community, who are grateful.”
Finishing the schoolyard project is a big focus of the study abroad trip June 10-28. Local workers will be hired to help lay bricks. Then, contaminated soil will be covered with two layers of clean topsoil and sod grass planted. Students will work on the wall and conduct resident surveys to learn local views on community problems.
Someday, Mutiti also hopes to create a natural walking path, install a watering system for grass and plant sunflowers—known for their ability to tolerate drought and pull pollutants from soil into their roots and stems.
“Sunflowers have a mechanism to cope with toxic materials” Mutiti said, “so when they take up pollutants, they store them in non-essential components of the plant. We found certain plants keep their metals in the stems and roots have the highest concentration.”
“We’re hoping this research will lead to a cheaper and easier solution,” he said, “so soil throughout Kabwe can be cleansed.”
The Zambia trip connects to research senior environmental science major Jessie Carpenter of St. Simons Island is working on. She’s busy nurturing seedlings in Herty’s rooftop greenhouse. She planted about six dozen sunflowers of varying sizes—from the bushy Mexican Sundance to 14-foot American Giants.
“We wanted some variation, so we could see which plant takes up more pollutants,” Carpenter said. “It’s a pretty flower and easy to grow. Residents in Kabwe can plant sunflower gardens as a family or as a community. So, I think the education factor we’re using with plants won’t be hard to understand.”
Carpenter experimented with different soils and used contaminated water. She's trying to enhance the flower’s ability to extract heavy metals. Certain fungi or soil types, nitrates or organic materials could increase absorption rates. She's also testing roots with a “good bacteria” to find ways to help the plant grow faster and ward off insects.
While other students are in Kabwe in June, Carpenter will be on campus chopping and crushing sunflower stems and leaves. She will use particles to create a water solution, which is put through a scientific machine in Mutiti’s lab that measures heavy metals.
One result has already amazed the group.
“We have to be careful,” Mutiti said, “because sometimes heavy metals will also come out as transpiration. Water comes out of plants as moisture in the air. Heavy metals come out that way too. That was one surprising outcome we’ve come across.”
Another “hyper-accumulative” plant is the Moringa tree. Georgia College graduate student Marissa Mayfield—a recent research fellowship recipient of the National Science Foundation—is studying that tree. In Kabwe, she’ll supervise seven undergraduates. They’ll determine whether residents should eat parts of the tree as a dietary and medicinal supplement. Or use it exclusively as a cheaper, easier way to filter pollutants from soil.
Mayfield’s team will also go door-to-door educating residents on ways to reduce lead exposure—like playing memory games and vacuuming household dust. They’ll test Moringa leaves, bark and roots to see how much lead has accumulated in different areas of Kabwe. This will include water and soil tests in a 4-square meter radius around Moringa trees.
“If you are using this water to bathe in and to drink and do laundry with, and it has lead in it,” Mayfield said, “then you’re accumulating lead too. It’s really sad.”
Donations to help finish the schoolyard in Kabwe, Zambia, can be sent to Dr. Mutiti’s PayPal.Me or GoFundMe accounts, located at https://www.paypal.me/Mutiti and https://www.gofundme.com/david-ramushu-school-lead-clean-up?utm_medium=wdgt.