Summary: Toxic waste can cause great devastation to the environment. If toxins seep into soil or water, they can be transmitted to fresh water that people use in their everyday lives. This can lead to many health problems down the road. Bioremediation is a process that naturally cleans up toxic chemicals that have been spilled or dumped.
The movies Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action are based on true events, in which lawyers help out people in two small towns who have suffered many illnesses or deaths of family members. The sources of these illnesses were attributed to large corporations that dumped toxic chemicals into the nearby soil. The chemicals seeped through the soil and into the water the residents used on a daily basis. The people of the towns began developing life-threatening illnesses, including cancer. Fortunately, they received compensatory damages after taking the corporations to court. But no amount of money could make up for the damage these people suffered.
Other acts of contamination have caused much attention to the way we treat the environment. Such instances include the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 and contamination of the Rhine River. Stricter laws have been enacted to deter other large companies from damaging the environment in the future.
In recent years, scientists have discovered ways to offset the harmful effects of pollutants in soil. Bioremediation is a process used to treat toxic spills with friendly microorganisms that transform the toxins into harmless gases such as carbon dioxide. In plain English, bacteria eat up the spilled chemicals so they can't cause damage to the soil or any nearby water sources. So, you have just learned that not all bacteria are bad.
In 1992, the United States Geological Survey scientists tested out bioremediation in Hanahan, South Carolina, and proved that it works. If all contaminated areas in the United States were cleaned up without bioremediation, such as by use of landfills or incineration, it could cost an estimated $1 trillion. Not only is bioremediation more efficient, it also costs less.
So how exactly does bioremediation work? First, determine what is contaminated. An oil or gasoline spill is a common contaminate, but contaminated waste can also be found in a restaurant grease trap or even the dirty grout in your floor tile. Microorganisms are introduced and feed off of the targeted waste. The targeted waste products give the bacteria plenty of food and oxygen, causing them to reproduce at a fast rate. After the microorganisms digest the waste, they release carbon dioxide, water, and other safe substances back into the soil, air or water. The more bacteria there are the faster the waste is broken down.
The solution to improper disposal of waste seems simple. However, bioremediation does not work 100% of the time. For example, soil contaminated by lead, cadmium, or sodium chloride will not benefit from bioremediation because most microorganisms cannot break down those elements. Also, the proper amount of nutrients and the right temperature are huge factors in the success of bioremediation.
A great benefit of bioremediation is that the microorganisms in the soil are not dangerous. They are already present in the soil and pose no threats to humans. The microorganisms do the work of physically removing contaminated soil or groundwater that otherwise would come in contact with humans potentially causing health problems. With bioremediation, humans do not need to come into contact with the contaminant and the risk of health problems is greatly reduced.
There are a great many bioremediation products available for commercial and residential use. Commercial products, obviously, are targeting more toxic issues, but consumer products focus on the elimination of grease, mold and odors. In fact, you probably have purchased some type of bioremediation product and are not even aware you have done so.
Of course, the best way to avoid contaminating the environment is to limit spills or the intentional dumping of waste into soil or water. Because of recently improved laws, fewer companies are causing damage to the environment. Now, individuals need to follow suit and help make our world a little greener for future generations.