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Mitigating health risks and environmental damage through education – 2024

Ghana - Accra
Dates May 30 - July 25, 2024
Program Focus

Engaging, educating, and raising awareness among auto mechanics about the toxicity of heavy metals in used motor oil and implications on human health, the environment and food security.

Dates subject to change

Program Leaders
Program Themes
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Environment
  • Public Health
  • Science


Information Session TBA Oct. 9 – 26

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In Ghana there are thousands of auto-mechanic shops set up for the repair and maintenance of automobiles. At these shops, the mechanics are exposed to toxic heavy metals in the used motor oil due to misuse and mismanagement of the used oil. Heavy metals find their way into the body and to the blood stream via either dermal contact, ingestion or inhalation, and are known to cause cancer; kidney, liver, and brain damage; negative reproductive and birth defects; and diminished learning ability in children; among  others. In addition, the used oil is improperly disposed onto the bare soil resulting in the heavy metals finding their way into streams and drinking water aquifers, degrading soil quality and the ecosystem, and posing a threat to posing a threat to the environment and food security. In addition, the mechanics are not aware of health consequences of such occupational exposures and work with no PPEs.

Prof Fred Boadu and a Duke Bass Connections team visited mechanic shops in Ghana in 2017/2018, interviewing over 150 mechanics, collecting hair and nail samples to analyze for heavy metal concentrations, and recording blood pressures to assess any associations between heavy metals in the body and blood pressure. The team found that mechanics who have worked more years tend to have higher concentrations of various heavy metals (Cr, Ni, Cd, Mn and Fe) in their systems, with attendant higher blood pressure levels. During the interviews, it became clear that the mechanics were not aware of the dangers their practices pose to their health, the environment and food security. Thus, there is an urgent need to provide community education and create awareness of these health and environmental risks in an effort to promote behavioral changes with regards to the mismanagement of used motor oil by the mechanics. This will be a highly needed and valuable effort to protect the environment, valuable groundwater resources, food safety, and human health.


Community Partnership(s)

Duke students will be engaged in an educational and awareness campaign effort pertaining to the destruction of the environment, health of the auto-mechanics, and threat to food security. We propose to visit over 200 auto mechanic shops, each with at least 6-9 (employees) apprentices. Presently, there are no enforced regulations on the use, management or disposal of used motor oil. The objectives are to educate and create awareness pertaining specifically to those in the auto repair and maintenance that:

  1. Used motor oil contains toxic substances that can be concentrated and find their way into drinking water, plants and animals, and serve as health threat to humans who consume them.
  2. Mismanagement and misuse of waste motor oil can seriously affect human health, compromise food security, contaminate groundwater and degrade the ecosystem.
  3. Used motor oil can be recycled, re-refined and processed for re-use.
  4. Direct skin contact with motor oil over extended period of time can cause cancer, thus, skin should be protected with gloves, masks and long sleeves.

The above objectives will be achieved by executing the following tasks:

  • Task 1. Meet and talk with representatives of the mechanics’ village, local government officials to announce the visit of Duke Team with the mission to educate, create awareness and share their knowledge with them with regards to impact of mismanagement and misuse of motor oil on human health, groundwater, environment and food security.
  • Task 2. Possibly visit nearby high schools and engage pupils in classroom discussions to educate them on the impact of used motor oil on human health, environment and food security. We will encourage them to talk to their parents about the knowledge gained.
  • Task 3. Interact with auto-mechanics in a culturally sensitive manner to share knowledge about protection of groundwater, environment, and health. Students will engage in shop-to-shop visits. The team will be split into two to execute these tasks.
  • Task 4. Discuss waste management plans and introduce the idea of proper disposal of used motor oil via recycling, re-refining and process recovery for re-use.


Program Requirements


Personal Qualities: It is useful to have students with an interest in disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, and how their daily occupational practices affect the environment and their health. No language or course requirements.



Housing, meals, and transportation: Students will likely stay in a guesthouse in Accra, possibly close to their field/work site. Breakfast and dinner will be provided at the residence, and students will take packed lunch to their work sites if needed.

Local safety, security, and cultural norms: We encourage students who have questions or concerns about health or safety in international programs to check Duke’s International SOS (ISOS) portal for relevant information. If you have special needs related to health, culture, disability, or religious practices, please contact the program director(s) or the DukeEngage office to discuss whether your needs can be accommodated in this program.

For guidance on how race, religion, sexual/gender identity, ability, or other aspects of identity might impact your travels, we suggest exploring the Diversity, Identity and Global Travel section of the DukeEngage website.


Academic Connections

This program is open to all, and might especially appeal to students in Engineering and Environmental Science, Global Health, Environmental Science, or Public Policy, as well for students who want to use their education for a humanitarian course.

Potential program cancellations

DukeEngage cannot guarantee that any program will occur. Programs may be cancelled for various reasons, including COVID considerations.

Student Reflections from 2022

  • Information sheet describing safety protocols for handling and disposing of motor oil

    Oil and trouble: Reflections from Ghana

    Published by Harrison Chen & Chinomnso Okechukwu
    DukeEngage Ghana students led educational and awareness efforts in Cape Coast this summer regarding the harmful effects of used motor …
    Read more