Texas and Taiwan may seem worlds apart, but they share a history of a toxic substance in their groundwater.
Both places have areas with high concentrations of naturally-occurring arsenic, a subject Texas A&M graduate student Lauren Holder plans to characterize this summer in Taiwan.
Holder, a Ph.D. student in Geology, will spend eight weeks in southern Taiwan studying the chemical availability of arsenic in soil.
Tectonic forces created the island’s fast-growing mountain region and lifted the arsenic naturally found in marine sediments to the surface.
Water running over rock and soil containing arsenic exposes the arsenic, which flows down the mountainside into the towns below where it contaminates the groundwater used for drinking and agricultural irrigation.
“Arsenic poses a serious health risk to millions of people across the world,” Holder said, a fact some Taiwanese villages know all too much about.
Taiwan has a total of 119 townships that exceed acceptable amounts of arsenic in the drinking water; 58 of these townships have levels seven times the regulated amount.
The township of Pei-Men is one of these places.
In the villages of Pei-Men, Taiwan, the people suffer from internal cancers, skin cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and black foot, all signs of arsenic poisoning.
Black foot is a neuropathological disease that starts with numbness of an extremity, usually a foot, and leads to blackening and eventually amputation of the limb. Originally called “black dry snake” by the local people, the blackened lesions snake gradually from the toe to the upper foot and continues to travel upward even after amputation.
The mysterious blackened limbs of thousands of men, women, and children drew researchers to the area 40 years ago to finally uncover the poison posing as life-sustaining water.
A simple method newly invented consisting of clay pots, scrap metal, and sand now allows even impoverished rural village to treat their water for arsenic. Although cases of cancer, heart diseases, and other long term effects continue to remind the people of this once silent killer.
Holder will work alongside Taiwanese researchers at the National Taiwan University to determine how much potential arsenic is left in groundwater and soil.
Her experience helping Taiwanese will also benefit Texans.
Holder with her project proposal, which won 1st place at the 2012 Student Research Symposium.Texas has a number of arsenic contamination problems of its own. From the Catahoula Ash Formation in East Texas to as close as Bryan with its plume of arsenic from old cotton pesticides, detection and decontamination of arsenic is a topic close to home.
“The biggest concern in Texas is probably rural landowners who drink their own groundwater, which isn’t required by the state to be tested for and maintain a standard minimum of arsenic,” Bruce Herbert, professor of Geology and Geophysics, said. “What we learn from Taiwan can be used here in Texas.”
Holder is traveling to Taiwan as part of the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes funded by the National Science Foundation.
The EAPSI provides U.S. graduate students first-hand research experiences, an introduction to the science policy and infrastructure, relationships that will enable collaboration with foreign countries in the future, and orientation to the society, culture, and language of a foreign country.
Holder is looking forward to what her experience will bring.
“The research experience abroad would provide me with valuable cultural and technical experiences, and it would allow me to work with researchers trained abroad and in different disciplines,” Holder said. “I hope my experiences abroad will inspire others to travel and conduct research in foreign countries and to experience other cultures,” Holder said.
After her summer in Taiwan, Holder will develop a database of her results to use in education and research. She will also design and implement a project for an undergraduate environmental geology course.
“They will use and interpret the data as a problem-based learning opportunity,” Holder proposed. “This opportunity can give students a unique experience where they can also delve into the political and cultural influence on the environmental decisions concerning arsenic groundwater contamination.”
Students would also be challenged to compare the geologic environment of Taiwan to an area in Texas to determine the differences in chemically available arsenic.
While Texas and Taiwan share a history of toxic arsenic in their groundwater, through the research of Holder and others, they can also share a solution.
Katy Ralston '12
April 27, 2012