Saying It With Flowers

Last summer U.S., Russian and Ukrainian defense ministers planted sunflowers on the site of a former Soviet missile silo, celebrating the Ukraine's nuclear-free status. Little did they know that the sunflowers were also decontaminating the soil, removing heavy metals and toxins accumulating in the area.At a recent American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting, scientists began discussing the results of using sunflowers as a cost-effective alternative to detoxifying water and soil near nuclear facilities. Scientists discovered that sunflowers floating atop water on Styrofoam rafts successfully removed toxic elements, including uranium, cesium, and strontium, from highly-contaminated waters. Using rhizofiltration (allowing plant roots to absorb the metals), engineers from Phytotech, a New Jersey-based biotechnology company, and Rutgers University concluded that sunflowers were the best candidates for toxic clean-ups.Results from field tests at a former Department of Energy uranium-processing plant in Ashtabula, Ohio and the Chernobyl nuclear accident site showed that sunflowers submerged in contaminated water decreased uranium concentrations by 95 percent within the first 24 hours, making levels lower than EPA standards.Burt Ensley, president of Phytotech, estimates that the cost of removing toxic elements with sunflowers would average $2 to $6 per thousand gallons treated including disposal costs, instead of $20 to $80 per 1,000 gallons for conventional chemical treatments.Known as phytoremediation, the process concentrates toxic metals in the roots, stalks and leaves of plants which can be easily harvested and destroyed--removing the immediate threat to the environment. "Phytoremediation offers us a way to reclaim many of our urban sites lost to toxic contamination," says Dr. Michael Blaylock of Phytotech.This spring, Indian mustard will be used to clean up a former battery recycling plant in New Jersey. If the results are encouraging, Phytotech believes plants will have a bright future as pollution fighters.CONTACT: Phytotech, One Deer Park Drive, Suite 1, Monmouth Junction, NJ 08852/(908)438-0900.

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