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Teams 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 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.
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.
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 flickr.com.
Tina Casey 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. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.