Elias Nyanza pulls communities together over issues of toxicity and contamination


Elias Nyanza, a University of Calgary Cotutelle PhD student, has been living his dream while conducting research in Tanzania.

When he isn’t overcoming challenges marginalized communities are struggling with, he’s protecting clean water sources and documenting toxic hotspots that could be a threat to citizens.

“I’ve been inspired by working with the community. Being able to touch the lives of people in need has been my dream,” says Nyanza.

He is currently working on his PhD project in Tanzania, which focuses on maternal exposure to heavy metals; mercury and arsenic specifically. Through this scope, Nyanza is examining birth outcomes and developmental milestones of children in the community.

“There are so many challenges in these communities, by being a part of them and contributing to improve their livelihood one way or another, that has been my passion. There are limited resources, but I’m trying hard.”

Recently, Nyanza made a shift from environmental monitoring for his project to biomonitoring. “It means touching more lives of the people in need, compared to before when I was just documenting the problem. Now there’s a real change in the community, it’s really happening.”

The mining industry has existed in Tanzania for decades, and until Nyanza’s study on mercury levels was published and featured in a leading newspaper, very little was being done to ensure safety of the miners. Once the study went public, however, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Energy and Minerals began to make changes.

Once the attention was put on the mining community and the adverse health effects they were suffering, Nyanza stumbled upon the question of why the miners weren’t using the cleaner technologies available.

“It means touching more lives of the people in need, compared to before when I was just documenting the problem. Now there’s a real change in the community, it’s really happening.” – Elias Nyanza

While the miners had been told to use the newer devices, none of them actually followed through and utilized them during their shifts. Nyanza discovered that this was because the device offered was made of galvanized zinc, which was actually yellowing the gold they were mining. Nyanza then published this evidence as well, and it led to the Ministry of Energy and Minerals to modify the technology being distributed to the miners.

His reformation of the community he was researching in knew no bounds. Once Nyanza solved the clean technology issue, he was right into solving the next problem.

“The entire area is contaminated because the waste management there is minimal. We then analyzed the contaminates, and combed the entire village to see to what extent the village was contaminated,” Nyanza said.

What was found were mercury and arsenic poisonings. There were dangerously high levels in the fields and drinking water, so Nyanza and his team worked together with the community to protect three water sources, cleaning them up and preventing future contamination to ensure the community had access to clean and safe water.

Following the discovery of the poisoned water, Nyanza and his team turned to the soil. He began a study titled “Geophagy practices and the content of chemical elements in the soil eaten by pregnant women in artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities in Tanzania.”

This study was looking at why pregnant women were eating soil that was in fact contaminated. This meant that there was a higher chance for harm to come to the fetus, as well as the mothers themselves.

This study garnered interest from researchers all over the world, and it all originated from a simple environmental monitoring study Nyanza and his team started in the mining communities.

These events led to Nyanza shifting his key focus to maternal exposure and birth outcomes, for which he’s focusing on the effects of arsenic and mercury. He is looking to develop a mercury exposure diagnostic test in the future to decrease the climbing number of misdiagnoses of mercury poisoning that clinicians assume to be malaria.


Thumbnail image courtesy of Elias Nyanza/LinkedIn.

The editor responsible for this article is Ashley Materi, amateri@cjournal.ca.

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