Often our first impulse to clean up a mess is to reach for a chemical cleaner. It’s the same kind of approach in environmental clean-ups. Often the experts first turn to chemicals to clean up badly polluted areas. A new approach to cleaning up pollution has been evolving in recent years. Instead of creating new chemicals to clean up contaminated areas, researchers are trying to use what Mother Nature already provides. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Victoria Fenner has more:
Often our first impulse to clean up a problem is to reach for a chemical cleaner. It’s the same kind
of approach in environmental clean-ups. Often the experts first turn to chemicals to clean up
badly polluted areas. A new approach to cleaning up pollution has been evolving in recent years.
Instead of creating new chemicals to clean up contaminated areas, researchers are trying to use
what Mother Nature already provides. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Victoria Fenner has
Nathalie Ross is standing in front of a big water tank divided into three sections. She’s a scientist
at Canada’s National Water Research Institute. She’s working on a different kind of approach
towards environmental cleanup. She explains she’s letting Mother Nature clean up different
aspects of pollution in each section of the tank.
“The first one is what we call natural attenuation, which is based on the natural process to
degrade contaminants, so that’s what we can call our control.”
In the second section, nutrients are added to the water to feed the existing bacteria to see if they
can be stimulated to clean up the water that’s polluted with chlorinated products.
“The third tank, in addition to the nutrients, we add bacteria. And those bacteria were shown to
degrade the chlorinated products, so we are hoping that it would speed up and also complete the
process to the end where we are hoping to see no contaminant at all.”
What Ross is demonstrating is “Green Chemistry.” Also known as Green Technology, the
concept is simple – instead of creating brand new chemicals, it’s becoming increasingly possible
to use the chemicals and processes already available in nature. The thought is that naturally
occurring compounds will be less harmful than the ones that we invent in the lab.
There are two streams of green chemistry – one is using environmentally conscious principles in
the production of new products and processes – water based paints and fuel produced from corn
are a couple of examples. Nathalie Ross is demonstrating the other stream – using naturally
occurring substances and biological agents such as bacteria to clean up the pollution we’ve already
Jim Nicell is doing similar work. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Civil
Engineering at McGill University in Montreal. He’s working with enzymes that will clean up
toxic waste. He’s found a surprisingly ordinary source of the enzymes – a piece of horseradish
“You can take your horseradish, put it in a blender, get the horseradish sauce if you want and
have it for supper. But before you do that, squeeze out the juice which is pretty awful, raw,
smelly stuff, which actually has a high concentration of this enzyme. I literally took that juice
and added some hydrogen peroxide and into a solution that contained some pretty toxic materials
and they just precipitate out. And so with a very small quantity of this enzyme we can actually
have a major impact on reducing the toxicity of that waste.”
The simplicity of Green Chemistry has been gradually attracting the attention of scientists and industry over
the past fifteen years. In terms of scientific developments, it’s still pretty young. But it’s a
concept that makes a lot of sense to Nicell.
“Nature is a whole lot smarter than we are. It’s had a lot more time than we’ve had to optimize
the way things are carried out. Now, we have a whole bunch of industrial catalysts that we have
made in the past but we don’t have nearly the time or, I guess, the capability, the experimental
setup that nature has had to produce the optimal catalysts.”
It might seem like an ideal solution, but critics say we need to be careful. One of the concerns
which has been raised is ecological balance – whenever large quantities of any substance are
released, even natural ones, there is often a risk that we’ll change the environment in ways we
don’t want to.
Brian McCarry is a scientist with the Department of Chemistry at McMaster University in
Hamilton, Ontario. He says, despite that concern, we shouldn’t be overly worried.
“They’re natural organisms, they’re not pathogenic. I don’t think they’re going to disrupt the
balance of nature. They’re not like putting in some really vigorous organism that takes over.
These are also not mutant, genetically engineered organisms so I don’t think anybody should be
terribly worried about having all sorts of strange genetic material floating around that are now
going to get into the ecosystem and run amok.”
There’s one other big concern about Green Chemistry: the cost. Both Nathalie Ross’s water
project and Jim Nicell’s horseradish experiments are still in the early stages. It’s not clear yet
whether it will be cost effective for large-scale industrial applications. But given the benefits of
green chemistry, advocates hope that the value of using the simple answers nature offers will also
be considered, not just the cost.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Victoria Fenner.