Stalking Mercury Toxicity in the Peruvian Amazon

Global Health Student Tells his Bass Connections Story
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Jan 17, 2018

This past year our Bass Connections team has actively been working on a project to evaluate the impact of a dietary intervention on mercury toxicity in the Peruvian Amazon. Our progress is the natural product not only of a committed team with passionate mentors, but also the diversity of academic backgrounds represented. True to the Bass Connections model, we proudly bring together the natural and social sciences in order to better understand a problem from all angles and offer a comprehensive solution.

For me, the opportunity to study a global health issue through chemistry promised to unite my own disciplines in a meaningful way. But an issue as extensive as mercury toxicity needed more than this. The mechanisms that bring people into contact with mercury are biological and social, and without those perspectives, my knowledge would not translate into a fully effective study or intervention. As a diverse team, my teammates with backgrounds in biology and psychology helped build a better understanding of mercury’s flow through the food chain and how human behavior and motivations shape dietary habits.

Watch a 360-degree video about the team's work in Peru:

During our summer fieldwork, we brought the collaboration from the classroom to the field and applied it to real-world situations by implementing a project that drew from our respective disciplines. The intervention had two equally important components: food basket provisions with locally acquired foods that could potentially mitigate mercury toxicity, and education about mercury and risk factors for toxicity. Both sites received the former, whereas one site participated in both components. The goal was to assess the biochemical efficacy for both groups and to see if complementing the process with positive-reinforcement educational workshops would further improve results. We measured blood mercury and mercury knowledge pre- and post-intervention in order to paint a more complete picture of the project outcomes. The blood samples are still being tested, but the educational component showed increased knowledge in the group that participated in our workshops. We are excited to see if we can tie our educational insights to biochemical outcomes, but right now have to wait for the lab work to reach completion.

The interdisciplinary nature of the endeavor cannot be emphasized enough. The chemical properties, biological effects and social impact were all critical elements that built upon each other to create a study that reflected the complexity of the real world. We recognize the importance of these perspectives and also acknowledge the many other ones that implicitly contributed to our work. As we continue to push forward with this project and in our future efforts, we will carry along the lessons we learned about the value of interdisciplinary research.

Watch Professor Bill Pan and others "Uncovering a Public Health Crisis in Peru."

Joshua Grubbs was on the Bass Connections project team Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Research and Policy Development to Reduce Chemical Exposures. He is a member of the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council. This post was originally published on the Bass Connections website and was republished with permission.