Using Nature To Combat Anthropogenic Water Pollution - The Years Project

Using Nature To Combat Anthropogenic Water Pollution

By Sam Muir

In the modern age of searching for climate solutions, we are obsessed with developing new technologies to solve our future. But with so much focus on technological innovations, we aren’t seeing the climate solutions that are right under our noses, or rather- right under our feet. Every minute of every day, millions of plants, fungi, and microbes are thriving, breaking down waste, and not only maintaining the cycle of life, but also improving it. They can amazingly sequester carbon and even clean oil spills that would devastate entire ecosystems. The natural world is filled with complex problem solvers, forever adapting and evolving to their rapidly changing reality.

Climate change is a looming, global issue that we are trying to tackle all at once, but there is no one single solution. Think about cleaning your house: you can’t do the whole house at once, so you take it one room at a time. The same idea goes for climate change. It’s made up of many smaller issues with many different solutions that we can take on separately to clean our global home. We may not be able to see it, but nature is at work all the time, and we can utilize it to mitigate our effects on the warming climate. Oil spills and plastic pollution plague waters around the world. The larger solution of eliminating the usage of oil and getting rid of certain plastics are lofty, long term goals. But nature is ready to offer us solutions right now. Certain mycelium can be added to oil, and absorb that oil in just a few weeks, leaving oyster mushrooms growing in its place. These mushrooms convert the hydrocarbons into carbohydrates, turning the oil into food for themselves. The fungus Aspergillus tubingensis can break down polyester polyurethane plastics. Most plastics take years, or centuries even to break down if they ever do, and usually end up polluting various waters, while Aspergillus tubingensis breaks down these kinds of plastics in only a few weeks.

Toxic levels of arsenic made worse by rising global temperatures are another environmental concern. Arsenic often comes from mining runoff, as it occurs naturally in many rock types but is released when rocks are broken down. Wind and rain pick up the tailings, carrying them into the water where they seep their way into the earth and merge with the groundwater. Arsenic pollutes the water we drink, grow crops with, and where aquatic animals dwell. Organisms that interact with tainted water are slowly gathering arsenic in their systems through bioaccumulation, which is the gradual buildup of chemicals in an organism’s tissues. Since it’s absorbed in their tissues, the chemicals are not excreted from the body, but instead accumulate over time and are passed onto the next organism who eats them. For example, if an aquatic bug has arsenic in it’s system and is eaten by a fish who is then eaten by us, our tissues take in and store that arsenic. A similar process occurs when contaminated water is used to grow crops, both leading to potential arsenic poisoning if consumed in high enough amounts.  

In the short term, someone with arsenic poisoning might experience vomiting, abdominal pain, muscle cramping, and sometimes death. Long term effects of ingesting arsenic over several years include various cancers, cardiovascular disease, and an impact on cognitive development. More than 140 million people around the world drink water contaminated with arsenic, and the effects of it are steadily increasing. Warmer temperatures have shown an increase in uptake rates and sensitivity to heavy metals in aquatic ectotherms, or in other words, more arsenic is being accumulated faster and it’s causing more harm. Rice grown in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana have some of highest arsenic levels in produce and continue to accumulate potentially toxic amounts as atmospheric CO2 levels keep increasing in relation to global temperature. 

The big solution is to stop mining, but that’s a massive goal with an unknown timeline. There are specific solutions that lay with specialized organisms of the natural world who can help right now. One of which, tucked away under the ripples of a flowing river in northern Sweden, is a mighty aquatic moss. Warnstorfia fluitans is a small, leafy, aquatic bryophyte born to thrive in acidic waters. It can grow all over the world and even in human-constructed environments. W. Fluitans absorb toxic chemicals like arsenic and converts them into evaporative forms by sequestering the heavy metals from the water through a process known as phytofiltration. In only an hour, W. Fluitans filter out around 0.074mg of arsenate per liter. For context, the maximum arsenic content for safe drinking water is 0.01mg of arsenic per liter. Even in the United States, around 13 million people drink arsenic-contaminated water, and looking on a global scale, this is a pretty small number with a lower toxicity level than in many developing countries.

Climate change affects us all and we need to take directed action to mitigate its impact on our lives. Focusing only on stopping climate change as a whole shades the solutions that can improve many lives right now. We could invest billions of dollars in new technology and maybe get the solutions we need, but nature has been thriving for billions of years, and it has life figured out. We’ve only been here for about 200,000 years, and are close to destroying the planet beyond repair. It’s time to go back to our roots, listen to the natural world, and make a big difference to our future.