Nicolás: Heavy Metal Hunter

When Nicolás Zanetta-Colombo talks about his research, one expression comes to his mind above all else: Environmental justice. The 33-year-old is a geographer, working at the Department of Geography – Research Group for Earth Observation (rgeo) at the Heidelberg University and Heidelberg University of Education. For his current project Nicolás works in the Chilean Atacama Desert. In the indigenous territory Alto Loa, he is investigating the extent to which the nearby Chuquicamata open pit mine could be a potential source of pollution with toxic heavy metals for the region. Opened in 1915, Chuquicamata is considered one of the largest copper mines in the world.

In recent years, Nicolás has repeatedly supervised scientific projects in the Atacama Desert. In doing so, he has worked with many communities that are located very close to the main mining areas. "The people there are very concerned that the heavy metals from open-pit mining could endanger their health," he says. "That's why I want to provide scientific results on how much they are really exposed to."

This knowledge, says Nicolás, will hopefully enable political decisions that improve the quality of life in Alto Loa. "Democratization of scientific environmental information", he calls it. “This effort is important because the Chilean state often neglects people in rural areas and promotes economic development without paying attention to ecological or social consequences.” This aspect fits perfectly to the profile of the UNESCO Chair on sustainability research and education for sustainable development of Prof. Dr. Siegmund in Heidelberg, where Nicolás works.


To find out how much heavy metal has accumulated in the environment over the years, Nicolás analyses samples from soil and tree rings. To detect future deposits, he has developed a simple device that picks up dust from the atmosphere. It consists of a 25-centimeter wide bowl, a piece of foam and a 1000 ml bottle from DWK Life Sciences. These passive dust collectors are now installed in some communities in Alto Loa. Nicolás has taught locals to monitor the equipment and take monthly samples.

"The dust collectors are self-constructed from simple materials. They are therefore very cheap and easy to use, which hopefully will enable more communities to monitor the concentration of heavy metals in their area," says Nicolás. "I love the idea of putting scientific research at the service of the poorest so we can help those who urgently need answers to their socio-ecological problems".