Dr. Kathleen Smits presents research at the U.N.’s Minamata Convention on Mercury

Dr. Smits demonstrates how policymakers and environmental practitioners can utilize her research to protect human health and the planet

Dr Smits Environmental Engineering
Dr. Kathleen Smits

Gold mining is poisoning the planet with mercury. While global efforts have been underway to mitigate its use and environmental contamination, they’ve fallen short.

Research by Dr. Kathleen Smits, chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Solomon Professor for Global Development in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, offers insight into why past approaches to reducing mercury contamination may have failed and how policymakers and environmental practitioners can learn from it to take action. Dr. Smits was invited to present at the meeting of the delegates (COP-5) of the United Nation’s Minamata Convention on Mercury on Nov. 3 in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I’m honored to be invited to speak at the U.N.’s Minamata Convention on Mercury to help demonstrate how impactful research has the potential to inform policy,” Dr. Smits said.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury, requires gold-mining countries to report amounts of the toxic metal used in extracting gold and offer action plans for reducing it. But Dr. Smits, whose team spent six years working alongside miners in gold-mining countries for a study, found that mercury emission estimates lack enough data to evaluate success. 

The study of baseline mercury emission estimates reported by 25 countries – many in developing African, South American and Asian nations – found that the estimates rarely provide enough information to tell whether changes in the rate from one year to the next were the result of actual change or data uncertainty. 

“To make effective and impactful mercury interventions and policies, you must first make sure you have the baseline emission estimate right,” Smits said. “Providing more transparency in their reporting would help with that.”

Additionally, mercury remediation experts often make decisions without engagement or participation from local communities. Dr. Smits’ research explores initiatives that better integrate community needs and knowledge to improve outcomes. 

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New approaches to a growing global health concern

Artisanal and small-scale miners – the term for individual miners, families or small groups with minimal or no mechanization to do the work – sift through rocks in rivers and dump beads of mercury over the sediment, which clings to gold. They then light a match, using the flame to separate the mercury from the gold, a process that shoots toxic vapors into the air.  

Once mercury enters the environment, it can cause neurological damage, severe illnesses, birth defects and contamination of our waterways. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining contributes nearly 40% of all global mercury emissions, more than any industrial activity. 

Dr. Smits’ presentation examines how mercury emissions risk perceptions shape and inform environmental responses at varying levels – from local communities to non-governmental organizations, national governments, and international governing bodies – and proposes methods for improving policies across the board.  

“Both environmental practitioners and decisionmakers can utilize this knowledge in approaches to environmental projects, mitigating mercury emissions and its consequences,” Dr. Smits said.


About the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering 

SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering thrives on innovation that transcends traditional boundaries. We strongly believe in the power of externally funded, industry-supported research to drive progress and provide exceptional students with valuable industry insights. Our mission is to lead the way in digital transformation within engineering education, all while ensuring that every student graduates as a confident leader. Founded in 1925, SMU Lyle is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest, offering undergraduate and graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees.


About SMU 

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, community and the world.