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Water Pollution: Orange Peels Can Suck Up Mercury, New Study Shows

Oct 23, 2015 02:01 PM EDT
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Oranges can help reduce the amount of mercury that contaminates oceans worldwide, a new study revealed. Researchers from Flinders University have developed a new, cheaper, non-toxic material out of industrial waste and orange peels that may change the way we deal with this widespread pollutant.

Mercury emissions have had a significant impact on the environment and human health over the past several decades, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As mercury accumulates in a body of water, biomagnification occurs and fish can't escape from ingesting toxins. Eventually, this contamination makes its way through each level of the food chain and gets worse at each step along the way. This can have a serious effect on global ecosystems.

"Mercury contamination plagues many areas of the world, affecting both food and water supplies and creating a serious need for an efficient and cost effective method to trap this mercury," Dr. Justin Chalker, one of the researchers from Flinders University, said in a news release. "Until now, there has been no such method, but the new sulfur-limonene polysulfide addresses this urgent need."

Researchers essentially created a large molecule known as a polymer that is able to suck mercury out of contaminated water and soil. They were able to make this material from the industrial waste products sulfur and limestone. The material appears dark red at first but as it absorbs mercury it turns bright yellow. Since this chemical reaction causes such a color change, researchers also suggest their polymer could be used to detect small levels of mercury in areas where pollution is suspected.

"More than 70 million tons of sulfur is produced each year by the petroleum industry, so there are literally mountains of it lying, unused, around the globe, while more than 70 thousand tons of limonene is produced each year by the citrus industry (limonene is found mainly in orange peels)," Chalker explained in the release. "So not only is this new polymer good for solving the problem of mercury pollution, but it also has the added environmental bonus of putting this waste material to good use while converting them into a form that is much easier to store so that once the material is 'full' it can easily be removed and replaced."

As an added bonus stemming from their research, scientists found that their newly developed polymer could also remove toxic metals from water. The study, recently published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition, could greatly reduce water pollution and help clean up the world's oceans. 

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