by Mark Edwards

The Superfund Priority List of Hazardous Substances ranks arsenic number one because very tiny assimilation builds cumulative body stores that impose devastating health consequences. Arsenic is a stealth killer ingested in polluted air and groundwater and poses a peak mortality risk far greater than any other environmental exposure.

Arsenic is one of the most common inorganic contaminants found in drinking water worldwide. The metalloid, (has properties in between those of metals and nonmetals) occurs as a natural component of sediments. Small quantities dissolve in
groundwater as a result of weathering, earthquakes, irrigation or fracking. The inorganic salts of arsenic are tasteless and odorless, but highly toxic to humans. Low dose ingestion over long periods can cause damage to health, including major organ failure, hyperpigmentation, hyperkeratosis on the palms and soles, disorders of liver, cardiovascular and kidney function as well as many types of cancer. Arsenic exposure creates severe damage during fetal and infant life because the metalloid blocks normal nerve and brain development. Concentrations below 10μg/L are considered safe but recent studies show cognitive loss in children at lower concentrations.

White arsenic used to treat leukemia

(Left) White arsenic used to treat leukemia, (Right) Arsenic in old cosmetics

A recent review article reported that early life arsenic exposure results in major mortality increases among young adults aged 30-49 from lung cancer and bronchiectasis, myocardial infarction, kidney cancer, and bladder cancer. Exposure often results in cognitive loss, behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth and sensory problems. Exposure by pregnant women increases the likelihood of spontaneous miscarriage, premature birth and birth defects. Alan Smith, professor of Social and Preventive Medicine at The State University of New York recently published a telling article: “Once we asked what arsenic might cause; now we ask, what does it not cause?”

Cognitive loss

Considerable research in South Asia and Bangladesh shows that exposure to arsenic in drinking water is negatively associated with child intelligence. A 2014 study of Maine school children quantified the cognitive loss. The research team, led by Joseph Graziano, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, assessed 272 children in grades 3–5 who were exposed to arsenic in drinking water. On average, water arsenic levels measured at the kitchen tap were 9.88 parts arsenic (9.88μg/L), with almost a third of samples exceeding 10 μg/L, the maximum contaminant level guideline of the WHO and EPA. The children exposed to higher levels of arsenic displayed a 5 to 6 point drop in IQ on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children.

Algae solutions

Algae offer several novel solutions to reduce arsenic exposure in children and to remove arsenic stores in their bodies and brains. The first four green algae strategies reduce environmental exposure. The fifth strategy naturally and harmlessly pulls the arsenic from body tissues.

  1. Clean polluted water. Use algae to remove arsenic and other heavy metals from polluted water.
  2. Clean polluted soil. Algae can clean arsenic and heavy metals from polluted soil.
  3. Grow algae crusts. Apply algae soil crusts to mitigate arsenic erosion and poison migration from wind and water.
  4. Expand soil porosity. Use smartcultures to enhance soil porosity and allow surface arsenic to percolate below the root zone.
  5. Use an algae chelator. Remove arsenic stores from children by using algae as a natural chelator.

Clean water

Algae have been used for water bioremediation in the U.S. for over 50 years. Algae bioabsorbs and removes botanical and animal organic wastes from polluted water. Certain algae species are very effective at bioabsorbing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury that are common near mines and industrial sites.

Iron biosorption – Source: Nature

Iron biosorption – Source: Nature

Some algae companies operate with a business model of separating the heavy metals from the algae biomass and selling the heavy metals back to industry. These companies have two profit centers, water remediation and heavy metals sales. Heavy metals are far easier to separate when they are in a solid form, in the algae, than when they are highly diluted in wastewater.

Clean soil

Arsenic poisons may be deposited on soils by power plants, mine tailings, industrial smoke plumes and winds, which create thin layer in the top few millimeters of the soil. Pesticides use a variety of poisons, but less than 0.1% of the pesticide is actually used by the plant. The residue flows into the field. Industrial farming methods use heavy tractors for cultivation and harvest, which compacts the soil. Soil compaction leaves the poisons in the topsoil.

Algae biofertilizer can stimulate soils and attract beneficial microorganisms. The algae-symbiant community adsorbs and, in some cases, locks heavy metals into the soil. The strongest mechanism for cleaning soils is improving soil porosity, looseness. Our research with Dell Monte Fresh Produce division demonstrated that algae biofertilizers can improve soil porosity by 500%. The looser soil invites a far larger algae-symbiant community of microorganisms, which enhances soil fertility. Better soil porosity allows rain or irrigation water to migrate below the rhizome, where the poisons cannot harm the crops.

(Left) Rhizome, (Right) High and low porosity

(Left) Rhizome, (Right) High and low porosity

Grow algae crusts

Ancient lakes that are now dry, such as Owens Lake in California have high arsenic concentrations in the top few centimeters of the old lakebed. When the wind blows with summer dust storms, the dust cloud distributes arsenic in a several hundred square mile plume. The arsenic poisons fields and water and puts rural families in jeopardy.

(Left) Owens Lake dust storm, (Right) Arsenic in Mono Lake California

(Left) Owens Lake dust storm, (Right) Arsenic in Mono Lake California

Most deserts have an algae crust. These algae soil crusts often live in symbiosis with fungi and form a surface matrix that holds topsoil from wind and water erosion. Algae live in symbiosis with fungi in lichens, which may be attached to the soil or rocks.

Chinese scientists have been researching methods to grow stable algae crusts for decades in order to reduce cropland erosion and slow desertification. Algae crusts bioabsorb and lock in heavy metals to soil elements in some environments. The primary advantage of algae crusts is to keep the poisons from contaminating other fields during windstorms.

Soil crusts form in deserts and ancient oceans

Soil crusts form in deserts and ancient oceans

Expand soil porosity

Farmers can use Smartcultures, algae biofertilizers and biohormones to improve soil fertility. The algae applied to the field through irrigation continue to grow adding valuable humus, organic matter, to the soil. The algae attract a diverse symbiant community that significantly improves soil fertility.

Soils with higher fertility and humus grow stronger crops that have substantially longer roots. The higher soil porosity extends the reach of roots due to the looseness of the soil. Higher porosity also enables pesticide poisons layered on the soil surface to percolate with irrigation or rainwater harmlessly through the root zone.

Use an algae chelator

The blue-green algae spirulina provides a source of dietary vegetable protein, B-vitamins, and iron. Spirulina is also used for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hay fever, diabetes, stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Spirulina has been used for precancerous growths inside the mouth, boosting the immune system, healing wounds, and improving digestion and bowel health. Recent studies found spirulina supplements modestly successful in treating colon and prostate cancer.

Spirulina has been shown to chelate with heavy metals such as arsenic and remove them from the body. Mir Misbahuddin and team at the Medical University, Dhaka, Bangladesh performed a series of studies showing spirulina chelated effectively with arsenic and removed most the poison from animal body tissues. In 2006, the team did a double blind and placebo test on forty-one chronic arsenic poisoning patients who were treated orally by placebo or spirulina (250 mg) plus zinc (2 mg) twice daily for 16 weeks. The spirulina extract plus zinc removed 47% of the arsenic from scalp hair while the placebo did not. Spirulina extract had no noticeable side effects. Results showed that spirulina plus zinc offers a natural treatment of chronic arsenic poisoning.

Other studies have shown diverse algae species effective at bioabsorbing heavy metals from wastewater. Animal studies have shown various algae species act as chelation agents to remove lead and other heavy metals from the bodies of animals. Other animal research has shown that algae chelators remove lead from the bodies of pregnant mice and allow them to birth strong and healthy pups.

Path forward

Arsenic poisoning robs our children of brainpower and imposes severe physical and mental challenges. Algae offer several solutions to moderate arsenic pollution by cleaning the most likely sources, water and soil. Algae crusts and algae biofertilizers also mitigate arsenic migration in the air, water, soils and root zone of food crops.

Algae offer additional arsenic solutions besides reducing ecological exposure. Several algae compounds have proven effective in moderating and, in some cases, eliminating the terrible mental and physical maladies caused by arsenic. The highest value for algae probably is for use as a natural chelator to treat victims of arsenic poisoning and remove the arsenic from body tissues.

Algae have been shown to remove arsenic stores in animals and humans. In the near future, people in areas exposed to arsenic in the air, water or food will use microfarms to grow algae. One teaspoon of algae a day will keep their children safe from the horror of arsenic poisoning, and preserve their brainpower.

If you have ideas on how algae improves our world, please contact Mark Edwards, Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University, at: