In February this year, the Efficient Micro-organisms (EM) International Partners Conference in Kansas City, USA, honoured Aurovilian Margarita Correa for “A life dedicated to Social Responsibility with EM.” The award was in recognition of Margarita's work in using EM for cleaning contaminated soil in a factory near Pune and for the eradication of malaria in a tea estate in West Bengal.
All over the world concerns are being raised about soil and groundwater pollution caused by industrial effluents. In the city of Loni Kalbhor, near Pune, the firm of Royal Philips Electronics discovered that the soil below and around its factories had been polluted by 1,1,2-trichloroethene (tri, trichloroethylene, TCE), a chemical used for removing lubricants (oils). It estimates that about 1800 kg of TCE is present in the soil and groundwater up to a depth of 15 metres.
A conventional method for cleaning soil and ground water contaminated by TCE is the so-called “Pump and Treat” method. In this method, contaminated water is continuously pumped up, cleaned and injected back into the groundwater. Another conventional method is cleaning the soil through chemical oxidation. Both methods have serious setbacks. They take many years (two to thirteen years and beyond depending on the extent of contamination) and the results are difficult to predict.
For technical reasons, none of the conventional solutions could be used to solve the problems at Kalbhor. Philips India then decided to clean the soil by using Efficient Micro-organisms (EM).
EM is a generic term used for innumerable combinations of over 80 strains of beneficial and efficient micro-organisms. EM was pioneered in the 1970s and 1980s by Dr. Teuro Higa, University of Ryukyus , Japan , for use in agriculture to replace fertilizers and chemicals. Over the past twenty years many more applications of EM technology have been explored which include effective treatment of hazardous industrial waste and effluents. One of the pioneers here is the firm Sustainable Community Development (SCD) in Kansas , USA . SCD developed its own brand of EM, SCD EM™, primarily designed to improve soil conditions.
“To test if EM could clean soil polluted with TCE, we dug five holes of varying depths in a test area of 2 x 1.5 metres,” says Margarita. “Each week in a six months period, two hundred litres of SCD EM solution were dripped continuously into each hole. This volume was later reduced to 100 litres a week.” The methodology used was basic. “We connected dripper lines to a few large containers,” says Margarita. “There was no need for electricity, elaborate infrastructure or qualified manpower.” The process was monitored daily and samples of soil and ground water were regularly sent to the Netherlands for analyzing.
The results showed that, after a mere 12 months, the presence of TCE in the soil and groundwater had been brought to below Dutch intervention values. It was also found that the heavy metal concentrations in the soil and the ground water had come down during the period of the SCD EM treatment and that the hydrocarbon contamination of the ground water had been drastically reduced.
Philips India has reasons to rejoice. Not only can it now embark on an efficient soil and groundwater cleaning programme, but the process also involves substantial savings. The estimated cost of removing TCE by any of the conventional methods ranged between Rs 32 – 50 million (US $ 700,000 – $ 1,200,000) while decontamination by SCD EM is estimated at Rs.1.5 million (US $ 34,000), less than 5% of the cost of decontamination by conventional methods. Another advantage is that the SCD EM process showed excellent results by the end of 12 months. The conventional methods for this particular plot would take an estimated 24 months for decontaminating the soil and up to 60 months for decontaminating the ground water.
Margarita is extremely happy too. “All over the world, million of tons of TCE pollute soil and groundwater. It has now been shown that EM can be used to efficiently and cost-effectively to clean such a difficult pollutant. The results also indicate that the method may be used to treat soil and water contaminated with chlorinated pesticides, heavy metals and hydrocarbons.”
Malaria has become a ‘near epidemic' in the Dooars region of North Bengal . In the first months of 2006 alone, it claimed 88 lives and infected 20,000 people. DDT spraying had failed to control malaria. In August 2006, the city of Kolkata ( Calcutta ) was also declared a malaria zone.
There is one exception in the area. It is the Puthajhora Tea Estate where, for the last 3½ years, malaria control has been done ‘organically.' Puthajhora's organic and bio-dynamic tea has been accredited and certified by agencies in the USA , Europe, Japan , India and Australia . Puthajhora uses a synergy of two sustainable and eco-friendly technologies to achieve this accreditation: the use of Efficient Microbes (SCD EM) and Neemazal, a neem extract based pest control product developed by the Indian firm of E.I.D. Parry. The results have been dramatic.
In the malaria peak season of May-August 2003, 734 people out of the Estate's population of approximately 6,000 were affected by malaria. In May 2004, the last DDT spraying on the estate was done. In June 2004, monthly spraying with EM and Neemazal started. The synergetic effect of the two technologies reduced the number of infected persons to 136 in 2005 and 41 in 2006.
The technologies have also proven to be cost-effective. The Tea Estate pays substantially less for medicines as fewer people are infected (about 11% of the costs incurred earlier), while the costs of EM and Neem spraying are about one third of the cost of controlling mosquitoes using traditional methods. Another important benefit of using SCD EM and Neemazal is that these products are environmentally friendly, unlike DDT.
In January this year, Margarita applied for funding from the Bill Gates Foundation to demonstrate that the Puthajhora Tea Estate approach can be used on a large scale. The project aims at introducing the technologies in three tea estates which have a combined population of around 20,000 people. Under this project, the entire area, including the surroundings of houses, water bodies, drainages, garbage dumps and other potential areas for mosquito breeding, will be sprayed monthly with a combination of SCD EM and Neemazal during the malaria peak period for a period of 4 years.
Margarita hopes that the project will be approved. “It is absolutely necessary that we demonstrate that these low-cost and eco-friendly technologies are sustainable on a larger scale, and that they are not only realistic alternatives to chemical treatment processes, but the best solutions to control malaria and achieve its near eradication in the area.”