Teams of researchers in Venezuela and Argentina are on the verge of elevating the lowly earthworm to rockstar status when it comes to cleaning up hazardous materials. They are studying the ability of earthworms to remediate soil containing lead, mercury, and other contaminants, and so far the worms seem to be getting the job done.
Worms and Green Remediation
Worms are basically a digestive system that can move about on its own, and humankind has long exploited their capacity for transforming organic matter into rich, nutrient-laden soil through the practice of vermiculture. More recently, at least agricultural operations have begun to adopt vermiculture specifically to prevent piles of rotting food waste from contaminating nearby waterways. This comes close to green remediation, which is the use of alternative techniques to clean up contaminated soil or water, rather than digging out the site, capping it off, or treating it with harsh chemicals.
Worms and Heavy Metals
The new research takes it a step beyond, by using worms to clean up metals and other toxic chemicals. One team used worm-produced soil (vermicompost) to absorb contaminated wastewater that contained nickel, chromium, vanadium, and lead. The other team used a more direct method, setting the earthworms loose on soil contaminated with arsenic and mercury. In both cases, the worms removed a significant amount of the toxins, particularly in the case of arsenic.