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Vitamin B12 Could Be Cure for Widespread TCE and Perc Contamination

A dose of vitamin B-12 could be just what the doctor ordered for thousands of sites contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals and degreasers.

Mom always said to take your vitamins, and now it looks like she was right.  A good dose of vitamin B12 could be the key to cleaning up thousands of sites contaminated by solvents, particularly industrial degreasers and dry cleaning chemicals known as trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (perc).   These are two of the most common ground contaminants in the U.S., and when they get into aquifers, they are among the most difficult to remediate.  All that may be about to change.

The Problem with TCE and perc

TCE and perc are chlorinated hydrocarbons.  Both have come under increasing scrutiny for their effect on human health, especially in children and fetuses.  According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, TCE and perc have been linked to a long list of cancers as well as low birth weight, miscarriage, major malformations, and heart defects.

TCE and Perc: Out

As the evidence of toxicity mounts, use of both chemicals is in decline.  California recently banned perc, the EPA is phasing out the use of perc in drycleaners located within residential buildings, and Congress has considered a number of bills to ban or limit the use of these chemicals.

Difficulties with Site Remediation for TCE and Perc

With momentum building for full-out bans, it’s pretty clear that TCE and perc will play little or no role in our sparkling green future.  But they sure will leave a mess behind.  TCE and perc contamination is notoriously difficult to remediate. Unlike oil, which floats, TCE and perc are more dense than water.  In an aquifer, they sink to the bottom.  Further complicating the problem is their solubility, of which they have very little.  Instead of diluting evenly through an area, they form plumes that contain a relatively small core of concentrated contaminants.  The core is often difficult if not impossible to find, and it can continue to leach contaminants into the aquifer, polluting the fresh water that enters for an indefinite period of time.

Vitamin B12 to the Rescue

The possibility of a vitamin B12 cure for TCE and perc has been floating around for many years.  In the 1980’s, Dr. Suzanne Lesage of Canada’s National Water Research Institute was experimenting with B12 enhanced by titanium citrate, which is simply citric acid combined with a nontoxic metal. In 1997, researchers at Cornell University found that certain bacteria can remediate TCE and perc contamination, but there was a hitch: massive amounts of B12 were needed to keep the bacteria healthy.  By that time Dr. Lesage had moved her research into the field, using the Aberdeen Proving Ground as a test site – an early instance of the growing focus on sustainability in the U.S. military.

More recently, researchers have studied B12’s effect on perc and dichloroethylene, and in 2007 Dr. Lesage and her colleagues published the results of a pilot study on the effect of B12 on a contaminated site at Canadian Force Base Borden, a military training facility.

An ordinary vitamin might not sound all that exciting, but here’s hoping that it can work on a mass scale.  In an era when it’s not uncommon for household faucets to spout flames due to groundwater contamination, we can use all the help we can get.

Image: A. Belani on flickr.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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