What Is Bioremediation? - dummies

By Alecia M. Spooner

One of the most innovative ways to tackle environmental damage by toxins and pollution is to let nature do the dirty work of cleaning up the mess. Certain microbes, or microscopic organisms that live in soil and water, can help with bioremediation, the natural cleanup of contaminants in the environment, by eating chemical compounds that would otherwise harm the environment.

For example, some microbes eat oil and have been useful in cleaning up the oil spilled in ocean waters.When oil-eating microbes digest the oil, they transform it into harmless waste products such as water and carbon dioxide.

The trick to bioremediation is providing the microbes with the proper conditions for maximum growth and function. If they don’t have proper conditions of temperature, water, and nutrients (fertilizers), they may not be able to digest the contaminants properly or effectively. For this reason, environmental scientists who use microbes for bioremediation try to provide the hard-working organisms with everything they need to get the job done.

One of the downsides to bioremediation is the addition of nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilizers to the ecosystem. Another is that not all contaminated sites are easy to access with microbes. For example, in some areas, using techniques of bioremediation to clean up groundwater requires a system of drilled wells and pumps to circulate microbes, nutrients, and air into the contaminated water deep underground.

Finally, using microbes to clean up pollutants sometimes takes months or years (depending on where the site is and how many contaminants are present), which can be frustrating for people who want more immediate results.

Generally speaking, however, using bioremediation is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly approach to cleaning up certain pollutants in water or soils. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency employs bioremediation at more than 50 Superfund cleanup sites across the nation.