Arsenic-Eating Bacteria May Clean Up Contaminated Water

An unusual bacteria has been found that feeds on arsenic and potentially could be used to clean up drinking water for thousands of villages in places such as Bangladesh that are highly polluted with the contaminant. Arsenic in well water has been known to affect an estimated 75 million Bangladesh residents.

The arsenic is present in water wells originally drilled in the 1970s by international aid agencies because so many residents were dying from diseases such as cholera, which can be found in pond and river water.

Dr. Joanne Santini, an Australian microbiologist at Melbourne's La Trobe University, discovered the 13 bacteria in gold mines in the Northern Territory and Bendigo.

We hope the bacteria will one day be used in bioremediation, where bacteria that eat arsenic will be used to clean up the contaminated water," Santini said. She continues to research the bacteria and how they convert the arsenic to make it safe. "In order to know how to best use these microbes for bioremediation we must first study how they eat arsenite," she added.

The bacteria attach themselves to pebbles. According to Santini, an arsenic treatment device could be created by simply filling bamboo pipes with gravel that the bacteria are attached to.

"The knowledge from this research should allow us to set up a bioremediation system that will not only clean up mining waste water but perhaps provide the Bangladeshis and West Bangalis with safer drinking water," Santini said.

Long-term exposure to arsenic is proven to result in health effects such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and reproductive problems.

In the United States, approximately 3,000 (or 5.5 percent) of the nation's 54,000 community water systems and 1,100 (or 5.5 percent) of the 20,000 non-transient non-community water systems will need to take measures to lower arsenic in their drinking water. Of the affected systems, 97 percent serve fewer than 10,000 people.1

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 13 million people in the U.S. alone routinely drink water containing arsenic at concentrations greater than allowed under recently established government standards. The EPA’s arsenic rule requires treatment for all drinking water and industrial wastewater with arsenic levels greater than 10 parts per billion (ppb), by January 2006. This represents a dramatic decrease from the current standard of 50 ppb.1

1 Water Quality Products

The Age Co.

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