Investigating the microbes that help tackle pollution

Published: 24 Aug 2015

Author: Brenda Parker
Investigating the microbes that help tackle pollution

During a ten-week study trip through Mongolia, China and India, Dr. Brenda Parker took a closer look into bioremediation: the use of microorganisms or plants for the removal of contaminants in the environment.

Supported by a Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Dr. Parker visited contaminated sites, examining dynamics of long-term pollution problems and scrutinizing the barriers preventing lab-work from being implemented in the field.

“A huge amount of research time is devoted to discovering bacteria or plants capable of degrading or sequestering pollutants, yet very little of this is applied in practice, which is enormously frustrating,” she says.

Brenda unveiled several key findings. When examining obstacles to pollution clean-up, funding was never cited as a barrier. “In all of the locations I visited, and surprisingly especially amongst NGOs, the opinion was that there is no shortage of money available for remediation. The main obstacle is often the polluters themselves. Paying for clean-up is admission of responsibility, and this is something industry is keen to avoid.”

In Kanpur, a city sullied with pollution due to tannery processes, the government has allocated substantial sums of money to clean up the River Ganga. However, a failure to enforce waste treatment, inadequate infrastructure and poor choice of technology have all undermined clean-up efforts leading to environmental destruction.

“In Kanpur the tanneries, which represent an important livelihood in the region, are portrayed as the villains of the piece. However the full story reveals a catalogue of failures. A biological waste treatment facility was built on the assumption that there would be removal of chromium before the effluent reached the plant. When this wasn’t done, the microorganisms couldn’t cope with the toxicity of the waste. Instead of returning clean water to the irrigation system, the cycle of contamination is perpetuated as wastewater containing tannery chemicals is supplied to farmers to water their crops.”

A lack of will feeds a black hole of data, according to Dr. Parker, further impeding clean-up efforts. Through the efforts of Ma Jun’s Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs and Pure Earth to produce inventories of information on polluted sites this is beginning to change. However, in China it can be difficult to prove the problem is there in the first place.

“Environmental testing has to be carried out by government-approved laboratories to be considered valid. Many of the people I spoke to claim that the official labs will refuse to analyse samples if they suspect controversy. This underlines the need to devise accessible sensors or testing kits that are respected by authorities so that citizens are empowered to report when pollution is unacceptable. However the political will to mobilise a response is essential.” 

Pollution threat to health underestimated

Dr. Parker argues that while much attention is given to the carbon footprint of products, the pollution footprint is often more chronic. Pollution has been shown to pose a major threat to human health, yet receives much less funding and media attention than other public health topics.

“Public health campaigns deal with diseases that can be treated with measurable results. Long-term exposure to pollution is much more complex and harder to tackle, which is why many corporate social responsibility programs are reluctant to be involved. The roots of this problem are often embedded in the more profound issues of cost-cutting and corruption when it comes to environmental regulations.”

Dr. Parker hopes to develop a framework for translational research in her area. This might involve assembling multi-disciplinary teams to consider user-centred solutions, or engaging with practitioners in the field who are aware of the socio-economic issues around contaminated land and water. She is currently working in collaboration with students at the Bartlett at UCL, who are combining her work on algal bioremediation with 3D printing technologies. These are small steps towards removing the high capital costs of remediation technologies by using open-source models of production.

Read Dr Parker's report

Notes for Editors:

  • Dr. Brenda Parker is a lecturer in the Department of Biochemical Engineering at University College London.
  • Dr. Parker was awarded the Travelling Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for a ten-week trip through Mongolia, China and India. Her focus was on contamination in water or soil relating to manufacturing activities and mining. Photographs available on request.
  • During the trip, Dr. Parker liaised with a number of interest groups: environmental NGOs such as the Pure Earth (formerly Blacksmith Institute); industry representatives; governmental departments; environmental engineering companies and political activists. 

Contact Dr Brenda Parker: brenda.parker@ucl.ac.uk / 0207 679 9789