Engineers and environmental scientists at UK's University of Leeds are attempting to develop methods that enable the self-clean up of contaminated water with simple organic chemicals like vinegar.
The harmful chromium compounds found in the groundwater at sites receiving waste from former textiles factories, smelters, and tanneries have been linked to cancer, and excessive exposure can lead to problems with the kidneys, liver, lungs and skin.
The research team, led by Dr Doug Stewart from the School of Civil Engineering and Dr Ian Burke from the School of Earth and Environment, has discovered that adding dilute acetic acid (vinegar) to the affected site stimulates the growth of naturally-occurring bacteria by providing an attractive food source.
In turn, these bacteria then cleanse the affected area by altering the chemical make-up of the chromium compounds to make them harmless.
"The original industrial processes changed these chemicals to become soluble, which means they can easily leach into the groundwater and make it unsafe," said Dr Burke.
"Our treatment method reconverts the oxidised chromate to a non-soluble state, which means it can be left safely in the ground without risk to the environment. As it is no longer 'bio-available', it doesn't present any risk to the surrounding ecosystem," he added.
Chromate chemicals have previously been successfully treated in situ in neutral Ph conditions, but this study is unique in that it concentrates on extremely alkaline conditions, which are potentially much more difficult to treat.
The current favoured method of dealing with such groundwater contaminants is to remove the soil to landfill, which can be costly, both financially and in terms of energy usage.
The Leeds methods being developed will allow treatment to take place on site, which is safer, more energy efficient and much cheaper.
Current environmental regulations mean that before the team can test out its research findings in the field, they need water-tight proof that their methods can work, as it is illegal to introduce any substance into groundwater - even where it is contaminated - unless it has been shown to be beneficial.
"From the results we have so far, I am certain that we can develop a viable treatment for former industrial sites where chromate compounds are a problem," said Dr Stewart.
"By designing a clean-up method that promotes the growth of naturally occurring bacteria without introducing or engineering new bacteria, we are effectively hitting every environmental target possible," he added.