Solar Energy south american researchers find that earthworms can remediate contaminated soil

Published on December 7th, 2010 | by Tina Casey


What a Twist! Earthworms Could Clean Up Toxic Waste

December 7th, 2010 by  

south american researchers find that earthworms can remediate contaminated soilTeams of researchers in Venezuela and Argentina are on the verge of elevating the lowly earthworm to rockstar status when it comes to cleaning up hazardous materials. They are studying the ability of earthworms to remediate soil containing lead, mercury, and other contaminants, and so far the worms seem to be getting the job done.

Worms and Green Remediation

Worms are basically a digestive system that can move about on its own, and humankind has long exploited their capacity for transforming organic matter into rich, nutrient-laden soil through the practice of vermiculture. More recently, at least agricultural operations have begun to adopt vermiculture specifically to prevent piles of rotting food waste from contaminating nearby waterways. This comes close to green remediation, which is the use of alternative techniques to clean up contaminated soil or water, rather than digging out the site, capping it off, or treating it with harsh chemicals.

Worms and Heavy Metals

The new research takes it a step beyond, by using worms to clean up metals and other toxic chemicals. One team used worm-produced soil (vermicompost) to absorb contaminated wastewater that contained nickel, chromium, vanadium, and lead. The other team used a more direct method, setting the earthworms loose on soil contaminated with arsenic and mercury. In both cases, the worms removed a significant amount of the toxins, particularly in the case of arsenic.

Another Tool for Green Remediation

The green remediation workforce is expanding rapidly. Along with worms, microbes are being recruited into the field. New research is yielding other exotic approaches, like “swelling glass” that can soak up pollutants like a sponge, and “hot bubbles” of pressurized ozone gas that break down pollutants.  Meanwhile, the energy needed to run pumps, treatment plants and other remediation equipment is also getting greener, as solar power and other forms of alternative energy are being adopted for site cleanup.

Image: Gummy worms by digipam on 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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  • Dukejohns

    So can anyone tell me where to buy earthworms in bulk??
    I do not have any toxic waste, but figure if they can do that, if I could get a bunch of them it would not hurt my lawn and plants.
    Pls advise.
    Doug Johnston

    • Tina Casey

      If anybody out there has some suggestions for Doug on where to buy earthworms, give us a holler.

      • Chuck Brandt

        Doug, search “vermiculture”, another search phrase would be: earthworm compost, you’ll find some local suppliers.

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  • The basic body plan of an earthworm is a tube, the digestive system, within a tube, the muscular slimy, moist outer body. The body is annular, formed of segments that are most specialized in the anterior. I think their body structure makes the environment green.

  • Hi,
    the listed “contaminants” – nickel, chromium and vanadium are essential micro-nutrients for all living things, without which they would sicken and die. And you can buy them in the nutritional supplements section of all drug stores, either individually, or as part of many multi-mineral and vitamin supplements.
    Arsenic, in micro-miniscule amounts, is also essential. It just isn’t mentioned because of the bad press for arsenic. No one would buy a supplement containing arsenic. Still, it’s essential.

    The only iffy element listed in this article is lead.
    Best regards,
    Peter H. Weis

    • Tina Casey

      Peter: Thanks for putting in a different angle on the subject of contaminants. To clarify, it is true that some substances are harmless, beneficial, or necessary for a healthy existence, but in terms of contamination you really can have too much of a good thing.

      • Hi Tina,

        you are right. We can’t live without iron, but too much iron can kill us. It’s the same story with all the 72 natural trace elements. Without them we sicken and die, and too much will kill us. Vanadium, for instance, is a major and primary factor in the prevention of diabetes. It appears that there is not enough vanadium in our daily food (it’s not being replaced by our modern agriculture). But then there is a valley in India where too much vanadium in the soil is a persistent health problem.
        cheers, Peter;

        • Tina Casey

          Peter, thanks for the additional information!

  • Drew

    Should add Paul Stamet’s work to the list here:

    He has some great talks at TED, as well, on the potential use of mushrooms (fungi) for toxic clean up.

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