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Sugar molecules could be used to remove the deadly toxin hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) from the environment.
Credit: Tomasz Barszcak

This is literally a sugarcoated story about how a simple and abundant molecule can rid the world of a deadly pollutant that causes cancer and a long list of horrific maladies ranging from skin ulcerations to perforated eardrums and kidney damage. The toxin, hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)), is a by-product of manufacturing videotapes, paints, and dyes. Its ill effects were made famous by the class-action suit led by Erin Brockovich–depicted in the film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts.

Up until now, cleaning up Cr(VI) from the environment involved expensive treatments with acid and other chemical agents that are themselves pollutants, though not as potent as Cr(VI).

Enter chemist Bryan Bilyeu of Xavier University, in New Orleans. Last week he reported that a fructose solution added to wastewater and soil contaminated with Cr(VI) removed 94 percent of the contaminate; glucose removed 93 percent. Sugar converts the toxic chromium into the naturally occurring and more stable chromium III–a nutrient necessary for life.

According to an article in Science,

Bilyeu says he and his colleagues at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México in Toluca are also studying how to filter wastewater through processed orange peels, cactus, and other natural fibers. He says this method would remove most of the chromium from the effluent, instead of discharging it in a less toxic form. Sugar solutions might even be able to treat contamination by other heavy metals, such as cadmium or copper, Bilyeu adds, but his team hasn’t yet investigated those possibilities.

Cleaning up environmental pollution has cost polluters and society billions of dollars, and it will cost untold billions (or more) in the future. Battles are waged between polluters and environmentalists in courts, legislatures, and global summits, while scientists labor to come up with technologies to rid the world of toxins.

In the midst of this imbroglio comes an unexpected remedy that is almost laughably simple: sugar.

Berardelli, Phil, “Sweet Solution for Chromium Pollution,” ScienceNOW Daily News, 29 March 2007

For more information on Cr(VI).

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