Is It Snake Oil or Proven Solutions?

Is It A Proven Remediation Solution or Snake Oil?

Is it a Proven Remediation Solution or Snake Oil?

Eben Byers was a wealthy steel mogul, athlete, and Yale graduate. While returning from a Harvard-Yale football game, he injured his arm on the party train. The injury was minor; his doctor suggested he try the wildly popular patent medicine Radithor. Eben took the advice with gusto, drinking three bottles a day. Feeling invigorated, he praised Radithor to all who would listen. He gave it to his racehorses, business colleagues, and romantic interests. All was great until his teeth started falling out, then his jaw spontaneously fractured. The doctors discovered he had anemia and a brain abscess. At 51, he died from radium poisoning.

We think we’re more sophisticated today. Yet, some would sell you agricultural fertilizer for subsurface remediation. Fertilizers are formulated for terrestrial plants and have their place in agriculture. But microbes are not terrestrial plants! Feeding microbes fertilizer is similar to Radithor—a medicine show elixir—contrary to science, sold on hype, and potentially harmful.

A billion years of evolution has fine-tuned subsurface microbes to survive in a near-starvation environment. Subsurface microbes monitor carbon and nitrogen and respond when the proportions are correct, which they are not in agricultural fertilizer. Microbes have various needs, but we’ll focus on nitrogen as an example. Disproportionate nitrogen enrichment reduces microbial biomass, richness, diversity, and CO2 emissions from the soil or aquifer1. Regardless of popularity or the exuberance of the salesperson, plant fertilizer is ultimately fatal! If your remediation vendor is getting this wrong, what else is wrong—one wonders.

1) Kutvonen, H. R. (2015). Nitrate and ammonia as nitrogen sources for deep subsurface microorganisms. Frontiers in Microbiology. doi. org/10.3389/fmicb.2015.01079

2) Treseder, K. (2008). Nitrogen additions and microbial biomass: a meta-analysis of ecosystem studies. Ecology Letters, 1111-1120. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2008.01230.x

3) Zhang T, C. H. (2018). Global negative effects of nitrogen deposition on soil microbes. The ISME Journal, 1817-1825. doi: 10.1038/s41396-018-0096-y.

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