Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 24th Jun 2007

Poisoned Land - Arsenic in Argentina

Dr Michael Watts, British Geological Survey

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show ARMAGEDDON! - The Science of Supervolcanoes, Meteor Strikes, Earthquakes and Arsenic

Michael Watts has recently been looking at arsenic contamination in Argentinean soil.

ArgentinaMichael - This is a project that weíre doing in collaboration with the University of Surrey, professor Neil Ward actually set up this work, weíre doing this through co-sponsorship of a PhD student.  The idea is that sheís looking at a northern region in Argentina, San Juan and La Riocha, well known for the wine.  Itís also well known for high arsenic levels in the local water and in the soils.  What were doing is helping out local geoscience institutes and local universities and with local medics weíre trying to build up a picture of what is actually going on.  Weíre building up information in three layers, working out the environmental geochemistry, surveying waters and soils for the arsenic content.

Chris -   Where is all this arsenic actually coming from in the first place?

Michael -   Well, the arsenic will actually be naturally occurring in the environment, but it may well be present in the water systems due to mining.

Chris -   The Victorians were very fond of it because it made very nice green wallpaper, and then made people go green and die.  But why is it toxic and why is it something we should be worried about?

Michael -   Well, itís a well-known poison, one of the issues is actually the chemistry of the arsenic and the form that itís present in the environment.  The toxicity and the availability to be taken up by humans is really dependent on the chemical form.  That could be the redox conditions, or the presence as an organic compound.

Chris -   So when people drink water or eat food or whatever thatís been grown on arsenic contaminated land, thatís a way that they can get the arsenic into their body?

Michael -   Yeah, or through hand to mouth contact, so if youíve got a bit of soil on your hands, if youĎve done a bit of gardening, and you touch your mouth, or soil attached to vegetables.

Chris -   So how are you actually trying to study how much arsenic people are actually being exposed to?  Is there a way of doing that?

Michael -   Well with this Argentinean work weíre sort of building up a survey of the waters and soils looking at agricultural products, and then that will lead to human studies.  With the help of local medical experts, weíre collating information from rural communities and getting a medical history of the people, where there have been a number of health conditions or even deaths related to arsenic poisoning.  We really need to confirm this anecdotal link between environmental data and the end point when people are ending up with diseases.

Chris -   Someone was saying to me the other day that earthworms are proving really quite useful in trying to work out whatís in the soil.

Michael -   Thatís some work weíve been doing in the UK, itís been well documented that earthworms are excellent indicators of the health of the soil, and one of those uses is to look at the arsenic uptake in the earthworm and look at the effect on itís health.  We can do that by looking at cell damage as a result of exposure to arsenic.

Chris -   So rather than a canary in a cage, youíve got an earthworm in the ground and you can use that as an index of the degree of contamination.

Michael -   Yes, thereís a tentative link to humans there, itís more an indicator or eco-toxicity.  We do use another technique called the PBET, which is a Physiology Based Extraction Technique.  This is quite a popular technique for simulating the human gut.  We would do a laboratory-controlled experiment with a tube.  We put the soil into a tube and then add bile juices and acids and so on to simulate the stomach.

Chris -   So itís sort of like a stomach in a dish?

Michael -   Yeah, that's it really.  So we look at how much arsenic is released from the soil, so how much arsenic is available for the human to be taken up.  So rather than looking at the total arsenic in the soil, weíre looking at the accessible arsenic, which is a very important point.

Chris -   If you discover thereís lots of arsenic in the soil, what can you actually do to remedy the situation?

Michael -   Thatís quite a difficult issue.  One of the most expensive remedies is to actually remediate the land, take it away for landfill and replace it.  Itís a very difficult thing to do, or seal the land.  For communities in Argentina itís a very difficult issue, because they are reliant on subsistence farming.  There might be a recommendation for filtering the irrigation water, whether there are engineering means to correct this, or maybe they source the water in other ways.

Chris -   So really avoidance rather than cure at this stage.

Michael -   Itís a very difficult thing thatís beyond our expertise at the moment we can build up the weight of evidence to suggest that the arsenic is there and it could be a problem, or maybe itís just perfectly happily sitting there, not causing any problems.  But building up the weight of evidence so that governments and institutions can come in and recommend methods of remediation.

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