From: Reuters
Published September 8, 2006 12:00 AM

Microbes Can Clean Up Toxic Waste Dumps, Scientist Says

CANBERRA — Microbes with a taste for toxic waste may hold the solution to cleaning up contaminated industrial sites and poisoned waterways across the globe, saving billions of dollars in cleanup bills, an Australian scientist said.


Microbes found in old waste sites in Australia not only tolerate lethal soil and water cocktails created by waste petroleum and chlorine, but can break them down so they no longer threaten humans, the scientist said on Friday.


"We have isolated bacteria which can live on those waste compounds," Megha Mallavarapu, from a government-backed environmental research centre based in South Australia state, told Reuters.


"We are enhancing the microbes present," Mallavarapu said, adding the altered bacteria were able to break down toxins faster.


Industrial contamination, he said, was one of the greatest threats facing societies world-wide, with Australia alone facing a A$5 billion ($3.8 billion) cleanup bill.


"Anywhere there has been a fuel dump, a munitions store, an old chemical factory or heavy manufacturing plant, there is potential for toxic substances to leak into groundwater underneath," said Mallavarapu.


The researchers said there were millions of toxic dumps scattered through Asia, with waste from the region's mega cities often pouring untreated into waterways meant to be lifelines for nearby communities.


The centre, set up to develop and export new ways to repair ravaged environments, said it was training researchers in Bangladesh, India, China and South Korea to deal with the problem.


But Mallavarapu said there was no single super-bug or solution, especially in heavily contaminated sites. He said scientists first had to look for new types of bacteria and enhance them, or provide oxygen or food to lift their numbers.


"It depends on the nature of the contaminant at each particular site," he said. "Sometimes we have to help nature." ($1 = A$1.31)


Source: Reuters


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