Environment alumna puts science into action

February 17, 2014
Stephanie Harrington
Kirsten Dales

Managing the human side of science is tricky.

But Kirsten Dales says change happens when science and policy meet.

The Royal Roads Master of Science in Environment and Management alumna is as comfortable working as a field ecologist in Mongolia as she is negotiating environmental policy. She recently returned from Vienna, where she worked for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to rollout an international treaty on mercury pollution.

“I love the theoretical underpinnings and rigour of science,” Dales says. “But I really appreciate science in action and seeing rubber hit the pavement.”

Through UNIDO, Dales is helping countries such as China, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran and Vietnam reduce and eventually eliminate the use of mercury in key industrial sectors. Her work is in support of the recently adopted Minamata Convention, named after a Japanese city, where in the ’50s and ’60s mercury poisoning from a nearby factory caused a debilitating neurological condition now known as Minamata disease.

“Since the disaster in Minamata, many developed countries have curbed mercury use, but in the developing world mercury pollution remains a serious issue due to environmental and human health risks,” she said. “Designing interventions is complex because each nation has unique political, social and technical challenges. The question was, ‘Where do we start?’”

Nearly 2,300 people in Minamata were officially recognized as having the disease, caused by eating contaminated seafood and food. Mercury, when ingested, attacks the central nervous system, leading to brain damage, memory loss, birth defects and behavioral disorders.

Nowadays, Dales says artisanal small-scale gold mining represents the largest demand for mercury in the world. Second only to coal plants as a source of mercury emissions, rising gold prices has made artisanal mining a lucrative livelihood for people in developing countries, with some 15 million people dependent on the industry.

But Dales says the use of mercury in the roasting process to separate gold from ore-bearing rock has had devastating health effects, particularly on 4.5 million women and 600,000 children who work in artisanal mining.

“In many countries, such as Nigeria, hundreds of thousands depend on the sector as their source of income but there is no regulatory process to support artisanal miners” she says.

“Communities face hazardous working conditions and persecution by the government as well as poisoning from inhalation of highly toxic mercury vapours during the amalgamation process.” 

Dales, who continues to work with UNIDO, is helping governments design regulations that support miners’ legal rights and promote responsible gold production. At the local level, her research is improving occupational safety and finding mercury-free ways to process gold. Raising awareness about environmental degradation, child labor, community health and gender issues also are part of Dales’ role.  

RRU Associate Professor Charles Krusekopf, executive director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies, taught Dales during her master’s. He says her motivation created numerous opportunities, including the chance to conduct field work in Mongolia with a local organization.

“What stood out to me about Kirsten is I had a number of students who approached me to talk about going to Mongolia but very few of them actually do the research and planning necessary to make that happen,” he says.

“Since then, she has built on her own projects through independent research and networking. Everyone who hires her finds her knowledgeable and valuable.”

Now a doctoral fellow in the Faculty of Forest Science and Conservation at the University of British Columbia, Dales says the applied nature of her studies at Royal Roads was invaluable.

“RRU provided me with the knowledge, skills and confidence to seek change at an international level, I had an excellent experience here,” she says.

“That’s what I like about environmental management; it exists at the nexus of social and ecological systems. It helps solve complex global problems.”