In a truly “alternative spring break,” three students and Dr. Charles (Chris) Keil, environmental health, traveled to Ethiopia in March. Their goal was to measure indoor air pollution resulting from the country’s traditional coffee ceremony, which could have serious health implications, especially for women.
Testing water samples in Ethiopia are Alex Brown (center, kneeling) and (left to right) Janelle Zindroski, Jordan Hepler and Worku Tefera, an instructor at Addis Ababa University.
While the data the BGSU group gathered in the pilot study were preliminary, the experience was deep and eye-opening, both personally and professionally, the students reported. In addition to putting their technical skills to use in the home visits, “we learned about being kind and aware of their traditions,” said Jordan Hepler, a senior from Weston. “We also learned not to take a lot of what we have for granted.”
And because the coffee ceremony is conducted for friends and guests and the Ethiopians are very hospitable, it also meant drinking a lot of coffee. The group collected 10 sets of samples in the 12 days they were there. Each ceremony lasts about an hour and 20 minutes and entails drinking three small cups of coffee. “It was the best coffee I’ve ever had,” said Hepler, who was accompanied by Janelle Zindroski of Cleveland, who graduated earlier this month, and Alex Brown, a senior from Bay Village, who wrote about the research in his Honors paper.
For the three environmental health majors, seizing the opportunity to conduct research in Ethiopia was a “no-brainer,” Hepler said, despite the fact that they had to find their own funding.
Helping arrange the sampling home visits in Addis Ababa was Dr. Hailu Kassa, public and allied health, who is in Ethiopia this year as a Fulbright Scholar and who speaks the native Amharic. He and Keil have collaborated previously on teaching and consulting in the East African nation.
In a country where the average life expectancy at birth is only 55, and with a 7 percent infant mortality rate, many factors negatively impact health, Keil said. “Respiratory disease is present and could have many causes. We want to see if indoor air pollution from the coffee ceremony is one of them.”
The ceremony is conducted by women and begins with roasting green coffee beans in an open, concave round pan over a charcoal brazier. Because most Ethiopian residences consist of only one or two rooms, with little ventilation, the smoke and particles remain in the air. “The particles are very small, which allows them to penetrate deep into the lungs and thus present a higher health hazard,” Keil said.
After roasting, the beans are ground and the coffee brewed in a round-bottom clay pot over the coals or, in rural areas, over a dung or wood fire.
As the only woman in the BGSU group, Zindroski set up the sampling equipment on the women preparing the coffee. “They were more comfortable with me than with the men,” she said, adding that they also spoke more freely with her through the translators.
“Alex and I took the dimensions of the room and made notes on whether there were doors and windows. We took the samples in other areas of the room away from the fire and measured the airflow rates on the particle samples,” Hepler said.
“The actual data collection,” said Keil, “was very much student-driven”—a learning experience Zindroski found useful. “He let us do it on our own and make our own mistakes. It was a great experience, and having this knowledge will definitely help me in Atlanta,” she said. Zindroski has just begun a job with the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registration, where she is an ensign in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. Her work could take her to remote areas in the U.S. or to situations like Hurricane Katrina, she explained.
“Ethiopia is the 12th-poorest country in the world,” she said. “The impact of being there would change anyone’s life. I want to go back and I want to do more.”
The preliminary findings will be shared in an Ethiopian medical journal, and Keil hopes to expand the study to rural areas and other sampling sites.