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A new study funded by the European Union has demonstrated that unsafe levels of selenium, sometimes referred to as an "essential toxin", can be reduced by a microbiological treatment. With this method, microorganisms reduce selenate to the less-toxic elemental selenium, which can potentially be recovered from the process. An estimated 0.5 to 1 billion people worldwide suffer from selenium deficiency, even though many live near areas where levels of selenium have reached toxic levels.
Selenium has been referred to as an "essential toxin" due to the fact that it shows only a marginal line between the nutritious requirement and toxic effects upon exposure. The steep dose response curve due to bioaccumulation effects have lead to the characterization of selenium as a "time bomb" that can be fused by exceeding a narrow threshold concentration in ecosystems through anthropogenic activities. Ironically, an estimated 0.5 to 1 billion people worldwide suffer from selenium deficiency, whereas areas of toxicity can be separated from selenium deficient areas by only 20 km.
The microbiological treatment of selenium - so called "dissimilatory metal reduction" - could supersede this problem, as selenium-reducing microorganisms are highly selective for selenate, reducing it to insoluble, less-toxic elemental selenium that can potentially be recovered from the process.
A study funded by the European Union, published in the September-October issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality, demonstrates that the biological treatment is indeed efficient for selenate reduction, and substantial amounts of selenate are converted to methylated selenium species or nano-sized elemental selenium particles. The emission of nano-sized selenium particles is problematic, as these can become bioavailable by direct assimilation or reoxidize to selenite and selenate. Dimethlyselenide and dimethyldiselenide, two species with unknown ecotoxicological long-term effects, contributed substantially to selenium dissolved in the effluent. Their formation was induced by minor temperature changes during biological reduction, thus a careful process control might drastically increase removal success of existing biotreatment systems for selenium and is a prerequisite for successful removal in full scale applications.
Consequently, remediative systems aiming at minimizing ecotoxicological risks on the one hand and selenium recovery and reuse on the other hand should be implemented. Due to the "high volume - low concentration" character, no sustainable solution has been found yet to treat selenium-contaminated drainage waters originating from the San Joachin Valley, one of the agriculturally most productive areas of the US (a comprehensive report by the USGS is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/p1646/pdf/pp1646.pdf).
The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at jeq.scijournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/37/5/1691.
The Journal of Environmental Quality, jeq.scijournals.org is a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental quality in natural and agricultural ecosystems published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The Journal of Environmental Quality covers various aspects of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including terrestrial, atmospheric, and aquatic systems.
About Soil Science Society of America (SSSA)
The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) is a progressive, international scientific society that fosters the transfer of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils. Based in Madison, WI, and founded in 1936, SSSA is the professional home for 6,000+ members dedicated to advancing the field of soil science. It provides information about soils in relation to crop production, environmental quality, ecosystem sustainability, bioremediation, waste management, recycling, and wise land use.
SSSA supports its members by providing quality research-based publications, educational programs, certifications, and science policy initiatives via a Washington, DC, office. For more information, visit www.soils.org.
SSSA is the founding sponsor of an approximately 5,000-square foot exhibition, Dig It! The Secrets of Soil, which opened on July 19, 2008 at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, DC.
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Soil Science Society of America
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