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Students Help Apply Idaho Expertise to Senegal Lead Contamination Cleanup

Wednesday, May 13 2009

May 13, 2009

Written by Bill Loftus

MOSCOW, Idaho – The tragic deaths of more than 30 Senegalese children near Dakar first posed a mystery in 2008.

“When it first started, they thought it was a biological epidemic, something like meningitis,” said Margrit von Braun, University of Idaho College of Graduate Studies dean.

Then the awful reality of lead’s toxic shadow emerged as scientists identified the cause and began taking action to remediate the health threat.

Two University of Idaho graduate students, Sonny Thornborrow of Buhl and Irene Shaver of McCall, traveled to Senegal earlier this year to help. They accompanied a world expert on environmental lead cleanups, Ian von Lindern, chairman and CEO of Moscow-based TerraGraphics Environmental Engineering and von Braun’s husband.

The company’s donation to the university to create an environmental health fund supported the students’ trip. The Senegal visit provided the chance to gather information to help guide a cleanup.

Von Lindern, an adjunct faculty member at Idaho, serves as an adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As a businessman, he oversees the three-decades-long project to clean up the scourge of lead from Idaho’s Silver Valley, one of the nation’s largest and most complex Superfund toxic waste sites.

“We saw blood lead levels in children that were as bad as the ones we saw in Kellogg in the early 1970s. The difference was kids in the Silver Valley were getting medical care; they weren’t dying from lead poisoning like the children in Dakar,” von Lindern said.

Von Lindern and von Braun, the university’s environmental science program founder, work together on global environmental issues. She is an adviser to the Blacksmith Institute, which works throughout the developing world where human health is most affected by pollution.

The main source of lead is residue from vehicle battery recycling. Dakar became a major recycling center for used batteries when prices soared. Senegalese would break open the plastic battery cases and remove the lead electrodes to melt them.

The sludge, thick with lead, from the batteries typically drained out onto the sandy soil. Lead dust contaminating clothing and air presented the main route of exposure for children, von Lindern said.

“Two years ago, people could make $100 a day, which was a lot of money, selling the lead,” von Lindern said. “Now they’re making a few dollars a day, just enough to cover food.”

Thornborrow, who will graduate this spring with a master’s degree in environmental science, brought his own strengths to the trip. A U.S. Forest Service employee on leave for graduate school, he worked on the Livingston Mill cleanup near Clayton, Idaho.

Shaver, a master’s student in environmental science student with an emphasis in law and policy, was selected for the trip because she spent six months in Senegal during the 2007 spring semester while an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College at Portland.

“I loved the experience, and I loved the people. I lived with a family and got to know a little about the culture,” Shaver said. “It was completely different working there.”

Tensions ran high among community members at times during meetings about how to address the problem. “They are extremely expressive,” Shaver said.

“One thing was we didn’t have any problem getting people to meetings,” Thornborrow said.

The students helped gather information about contamination in the homes, which typically housed several families. Children often spent time in several homes because of complex family ties, which complicated efforts to understand how they were exposed to lead.

Another initiative during their nine-day trip was to explore practical approaches to removing lead dust from homes. Shaver’s ability to speak Wolof, Senegal’s main language, helped her to guide the women who tackled the job.

The Idaho team’s goal will focus on helping to develop a plan to both clean up the environmental lead contamination and reduce its threat to human health.

The company-university partnership provides an ideal match, von Lindern said. “TerraGraphics has the technical expertise and the university has the international expertise so it’s a great opportunity for students to get the training and experience to deal with a real-world problem.”

For Thornborrow, the Senegal experience confirmed his career interest in working on environmental cleanups, an interest that will take him back to work for the U.S. Forest Service after graduation.

Shaver said her return to Senegal may change her final year of graduate studies. More technical studies in environmental toxicology will help her help people understand and respond to issues.

“This opportunity was a perfect fit for me because I am interested in the perception of risk and native communities,” Shaver said. “I found that if you’re really going to be an interdisciplinary scholar, being able to address the technical aspects of an issue is critical.”

Media Contacts: Margrit von Braun, College of Graduate Studies dean,; Ian von Lindern, TerraGraphics Environmental Engineering CEO, (208) 882-7858,; or Bill Loftus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences science writer, (208) 885-7694,

Photos are available by contacting Bill Loftus at

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