Unearthing Soil Solutions for Arsenic Remediation | Crop and Soil Sciences

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“The United Nations recently put out a bit of a bad report. Global soil pollution. “The main challenge is to restore land and protect human health from toxic exposure,” said Owen Duckworth, professor of biochemistry at North Carolina State University.

Soil pollution may seem to be limited to surface runoff, but many pollutants are produced by mining, industrial activities, waste disposal, and naturally occurring deposits. Toxic heavy metals are a silent threat to ecosystems and human health, often through contaminated drinking water.

Understanding the activity of arsenic

The Duckworth Lab collaborates with University of North Carolina Superfund Research Program To understand the distribution and impact of naturally occurring arsenic in North Carolina.

His group worked with several collaborators to identify how geology affects water pollution. The Slate Belt of the Piedmont region is scattered with these natural deposits that can cause water pollution.

Map of North Carolina showing geologic belts in the state.
Photo by University of North Carolina

Modeling and testing by NC State Extension Specialist Robert Austin, student Hannah Pell and recent graduate Taylor Alvarado show that Union and Chatham counties have pockets of groundwater with very high arsenic concentrations.

Duckworth explains that the population affected by these pockets of pollution is likely to increase.

“Nearly 2.4 million North Carolinians depend on well water that can be tested for tasteless toxins like arsenic. We estimate that approximately 45,000 people consume well water that exceeds the arsenic limit.

Our work in Superfund research is to examine the mechanisms by which arsenic moves through soil and enters groundwater and identify actions to protect public health.

The Superfund research program has a significant outreach and education component, working with public health departments, state geologists, engineers, and citizens to communicate findings and shape policy.

Field soil testing for arsenic

Biochar for arsenic recovery

A graduate student subproject from the Duckworth lab recently attracted the attention of the National Institutes of Health.

Matias Soares worked in the Duckworth lab for a year, researching the feasibility of using locally produced biochar to remediate arsenic-contaminated water in his native Brazil. The findings show that high-temperature biochar is a particularly effective arsenic recovery method.

Duckworth emphasized that locally tailored adaptation strategies are key.

“Biogeochemical relationships are complex and often have conflicting effects in the overall system. This was a great study that demonstrates an effective and economical on-site remediation strategy for mine contamination in Brazil.”

Many potentially dangerous soil deposits are naturally occurring, so eliminating them is unrealistic. It makes more sense to keep them from changing shape and making them more mobile.

There is a growing trend to stabilize rather than eliminate heavy metals. Keeping known deposits undisturbed is a better option when using less invasive interventions such as filtration and infrastructure upgrades.

Duckworth was named a soil science fellow

For his work in environmental science, the Soil Science Association of America recently named Duckworth a fellow. The awards are given to members of the community in recognition of their contributions to soil science through education, service and research.

Josh Heitman, NC State professor of soil physics and hydrology, presented Duckworth with the award.

“Owen has an outstanding ability to understand how his fundamental knowledge in soil biogeochemistry can be applied to real-world problems facing NC citizens,” Heitman said. This has pushed the research program to tackle broader environmental problems that often fly under the radar.

“I am very pleased with the welcoming nature of the soil science community,” Duckworth said. The award is great recognition to be considered part of this important community.

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