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Dealing with Arsenic through Permaculture  RSS feed

 
Chris Watson
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Everyone speaks of Arsenic as a deadly toxin, and to humans(and most of Phylum Chordata) this is true. But it's nothing new. Arsenic can be produced in a volatile form in factories, but also in plants and animals. In fact, it's a waste product of our own metabolism. From a chemist's standpoint, arsenic is an element (number 33 on the Periodic Table). There is no more or less of it on Earth than their ever has been, which means that at some point in our planet's history, Mother Nature developed a way to deal with it.

We know that nature has ways to deal with man-made problems: e.g. mycoremediation that breaks down petroleum. Has anyone looked into ways this could be done with arsenic? Since one tenet of Permaculture (as geoff lawton teaches it) is that the solution is found in the problem, it seems that we're in a good position to tackle this issue.
 
Dave Burton
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Arsenic is an element which means it cannot be broken down ,except on a galactic time scale, because everything decays.

First, here is a thread at permies.com that has useful information on the topic:
http://www.permies.com/t/19232/fungi/arsenic-lead-soils

Nature has even more in store for remediating land; the SquareFoot Gardening Blog has a wonderful list of plants and the substances they cleanup:
http://www.sfggardens.com/phytoremediation-plant-list-how-to-clean-up-damaged-land-clean-industrially-damaged-or-chemically-expired-land-with-phytoremediation-plant-list/

This is a wonderful dissertation by Dennis G. Shin about phytoremediation, the process of using plants to cleanup contaminated land:
http://www.birminghamcomprehensiveplan.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/4_Phytoremediation-for-Site-Cleanup.pdf
 
John Elliott
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I'll flag this thread since mycoremediation and phytoremediation are of great interest to me. That said, I haven't run across an arsenic problem lately so I really don't have any pressing need to do any right now.

Anyone else with a pressing problem? Lots of pre-WWII insecticide used in your area? A big pile of treated lumber that you would like to restore? Let's work it through on this thread.
 
Dan Boone
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Like a lot of elements, arsenic is typically bound up in a variety of chemical compounds, which are of differing toxicity because the bioavailability of the arsenic varies. I don't know the specific answer to uour question, but your goal may be to find a plant process that takes up arsenic in the bioavalable forms of concern and binds it up in compounds of lesser bioavailability.
 
Tina Paxton
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Seems that ferns are the solution:

http://www.epa.gov/ncer/sbir/success/pdf/phytoremediation.pdf

And for aquatic situations: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0045653511001913

Some aquatic plants have been reported to accumulate high level of arsenic from contaminated water. Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), duckweeds (Lemna gibba, Lemna minor, Spirodela polyrhiza), water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), water ferns (Azolla caroliniana, Azolla filiculoides, and Azolla pinnata), water cabbage (Pistia stratiotes), hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) and watercress (Lepidium sativum) have been studied to investigate their arsenic uptake ability and mechanisms, and to evaluate their potential in phytoremediation technology.
 
Chris Watson
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John Elliott wrote:Anyone else with a pressing problem? Lots of pre-WWII insecticide used in your area? A big pile of treated lumber that you would like to restore? Let's work it through on this thread.


Treated lumber is exactly the reason I started this thread, and the reason I chose to put it under the Composting forum. For many decades here in Michigan, it was wisdom to build everything out of arsenic-treated lumber. Now that everything is falling apart and being torn down, I was hoping to find a way to render this material inert.

Dave Burton wrote:Arsenic is an element which means it cannot be broken down ,except on a galactic time scale, because everything decays.

Yes, but as an element, arsenic can be combined with other elements in ways that render it more or less toxic. What's toxic to humans isn't necessarily toxic to the planet – the planet has had arsenic the whole time, and dealt with it quite effectively. I want to know how, and then know if there's a way to contain and replicate the natural process.

My inspiration for this thread is the following comment. This is what I hope can be accomplished.

 
John Elliott
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Yes, the planet has had arsenic the whole time, but it has never before had a species that thought up clever industrial uses for the arsenic and went to the trouble to concentrate it for those uses. Nature will eventually disperse our little piles of concentrated arsenic toxins, but until she does, they remain problematic. Meaning we have to plant hyper-accumulators and then go to the trouble of harvesting them and digging a DEEP hole to bury the hyper-accumulator along with its accumulated arsenic.

It appears that the Chinese Brake fern is a fairly good hyperaccumulator; will it grow well in your area?
 
Chris Watson
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John Elliott wrote:Yes, the planet has had arsenic the whole time, but it has never before had a species that thought up clever industrial uses for the arsenic and went to the trouble to concentrate it for those uses. Nature will eventually disperse our little piles of concentrated arsenic toxins, but until she does, they remain problematic. Meaning we have to plant hyper-accumulators and then go to the trouble of harvesting them and digging a DEEP hole to bury the hyper-accumulator along with its accumulated arsenic.

It appears that the Chinese Brake fern is a fairly good hyperaccumulator; will it grow well in your area?


But isn't burying the accumulators just another trans-generational game of kick the can? Three centuries from now, when our electronic records are corrupted and none of our descendants know how to read paper documents (oops, I meant to say three decades) nobody will know where we planted the arsenic bombs. Some future permaculturist will buy that land with the best intentions and poison 10,000 people.
 
John Elliott
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When I say deep, I mean very, very deep. At one time in my career, I worked at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, that 2500' deep hole in the ground to bury transuranic waste. That's the kind of deep I am used to thinking about. By the time the waters of the Pecos river carve a 2500' canyon in the plains of southeast New Mexico, that could be 20,000,000+ AD. It's even more effective than kicking the can into orbit, because things only stay in orbit on the order of tens of years before their orbit decays.

There are plenty of abandoned hard rock and coal mines that would be perfect places to bury some arsenic laden waste. That will stay buried 3 centuries from now.

Or how about my other idea -- put the waste in a box on the sea floor near a subduction zone and let it get cycled through the Earth's mantle? When it does come back up, it will be in the form of lava.
 
Chris Watson
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Hmmmm... Perhaps it can be converted to mercuric arsenate before being sent to the subduction zone. Two birds, one stone... that sort of thing.
 
Peter Ingot
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Dave Burton wrote:Arsenic is an element which means it cannot be broken down ,except on a galactic time scale, because everything decays.

Yes, but as an element, arsenic can be combined with other elements in ways that render it more or less toxic. What's toxic to humans isn't necessarily toxic to the planet – the planet has had arsenic the whole time, and dealt with it quite effectively. I want to know how, and then know if there's a way to contain and replicate the natural process.


I speculate that one way nature has dealt with heavy metals and other unwanted stuff is by locking them up in coal and burying them deep underground. Coal ash seems to be full of toxins. Coal formation is pretty slow, but the first stage of coal formation may be recalcitrant soil organic matter. This is the humus that never seems to break down. It's especially common in bogs and other anaerobic places where trees and people can be preserved for centuries and peat forms, but all soil seems to have some organic matter that doesn't break down easily, especially under grassland or forest. Arable farmers often try to break down as much organic matter as possible into readily available plant food, so I guess that means ploughing land will also release any toxins that nature has been trying to fossilise.

Note this is just my theory. It's testable but I don't know if there is any evidence for it. I might be talking out of my posterior
 
John Wolfram
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Another thing to consider is that having too little arsenic in your diet can actually be a bad thing.
Arsenic deficiency may cause cancer
Arsenic deficiency can kill lactating goats
 
S Haze
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I don't know if I should add to this thread or start a new one, but I'd like to discuss harmful levels of arsenic in drinking and bathing water and a permaculture way of dealing with this. any suggestions?


Quick background information about why this is important to me:

Since moving on to my farm about 7 years ago my family has had various health problems and we recently found out that our well water is over double the state guidelines for arsenic. We are now reasonably confident that this has caused or contributed to many of the symptoms experienced by family members. My wife is undergoing chelation therapy and a rash thats bothered her for years seems to finally be going away. Neighbors have been testing their water and finding high levels as well and many of them have experienced symptoms too.
 
Del Hansen
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S Haze - arsenic in water (particularly groundwater) is a much more serious issue than in soils. This is because contaminated groundwater typically contains inorganic forms of Arsenic - As(III) and As(V) which are extremely toxic to humans - especially the As(III) which shows a 20x toxicity to As(V). Organic forms of arsenic (in chemistry terms - not gardening terms) typically found in plants are much less toxic. Long term exposure to arsenic in water can kill - for further information on this, look up the arsenic situation in Bangladesh and northern India. Toxicity can be indicated by skin diseases which are followed by greatly increased rates of cancer as well as damage to kidney and nervous system. At the very least, you need to be filtering your water using activated carbon and/or reverse osmosis and testing the result. I can send you some scientific papers on this if you are interested.
 
S Haze
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Del,
Thanks for the info. We are already in the process of dealing with our problem as are our neighbors. However I'm still concerned about bathing or showering in arsenic contaminated water and I'd like to get this community's thoughts on alternatives such as using rainwater or spring water rather than large, technologically complex, and expensive methods. One "solution" described by our local water conditioning person required hiring a hazmat crew to periodically empty a filter and dispose of its contents. They even told us that sounded crazy.

We have RO for drinking and are running it through a berkey for extra measure. This water will be tested once we are set up in our new house on the same property.
 
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