Monday, June 11, 2001

UC goal: disarm toxins

$4.7M grant funds waste cleanup work

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The University of Cincinnati has received a four-year, $4.7 million grant to study ways to use plants and microbes to clean up the complex toxic brews often found at Superfund waste sites.

        Scientists know that certain types of bacteria can be used to clean up basic oil spills. But experts have been less successful at using bioremediation on more complicated, yet more common, mixed toxic wastes, said Paul Bishop, an environmental engineer and associate dean of research at UC's College of Engineering.

        “Most of these kinds of studies have focused on only one type of waste at a time, which doesn't reflect real-world conditions,” Dr. Bishop said.

        The UC project, funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will look at how bioremediation programs designed to treat organic chemical wastes are affected when those wastes also contain heavy metals, such as arsenic and chromium.

Multi-specialty approach
               A team of seven UC scientists will be involved, including researchers in environmental health, molecular genetics, chemistry and biological sciences.

        One way the UC research might be applied would be to develop better ways to clean up waste sites near oil and gas refineries, especially old, small ones.

        Decades ago, many cities had plants where coal was converted into propane and other fuel gases. The byproducts of those processes, which were often dumped on-site or nearby, contain high levels of PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Those wastes also contain assorted heavy metals, which can cause cancer, Dr. Bishop said.

Heavy metal factor
               While bacteria have been shown in lab experiments to be capable of breaking down PAHs into non-toxic forms, adding heavy metals to the mix often changes how the bacteria function, Dr. Bishop said.

        With better understanding of how the bacteria work, researchers may be able to develop a better system to treat mixed toxic wastes, he said.

        While the grant runs four years, some early findings are expected in about a year, Dr. Bishop said.


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