Linking Microbial Activity with Arsenic Fate during Cow Dung Disposal of Arsenic-Bearing Wastes

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Tara Marie Clancy, Raghav Reddy, James Tan, Kim F Hayes and Lutgarde Raskin, University of Michigan, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Ann Arbor, MI, United States
To address widespread arsenic contamination of drinking water sources numerous technologies have been developed to remove arsenic. All technologies result in the production of an arsenic-bearing waste that must be evaluated and disposed in a manner to limit the potential for environmental release and human exposure. One disposal option that is commonly recommended for areas without access to landfills is the mixing of arsenic-bearing wastes with cow dung. These recommendations are made based on the ability of microorganisms to create volatile arsenic species (including mono-, di-, and tri-methylarsine gases) to be diluted in the atmosphere. However, most studies of environmental microbial communities have found only a small fraction (<0.1 %) of the total arsenic present in soils or rice paddies is released via volatilization. Additionally, past studies often have not monitored arsenic release in the aqueous phase. Two main pathways for microbial arsenic volatilization are known and include methylation of arsenic during methanogenesis and methylation by arsenite S-adenosylmethionine methyltransferase. In this study, we compare the roles of these two pathways in arsenic volatilization and aqueous mobilization through mesocosm experiments with cow dung and arsenic-bearing wastes produced during drinking water treatment in West Bengal, India. Arsenic in gaseous, aqueous, and solid phases was measured. Consistent with previous reports, less than 0.02% of the total arsenic present was volatilized. A much higher amount (~5%) of the total arsenic was mobilized into the liquid phase. Through the application of molecular tools, including 16S rRNA sequencing and quantification of gene transcripts involved in methanogenesis, this study links microbial community activity with arsenic fate in potential disposal environments. These results illustrate that disposal of arsenic-bearing wastes by mixing with cow dung does not achieve its end goal of promoting arsenic volatilization but rather appears to increase arsenic mobilization in the aqueous phase, raising concerns with this approach.