10 October 2006 — Issue #24 Editor: Michael J. Ross
In this issue of the PristinePlanet.com Newsletter, we look at both sides of the bacterium coin — the dangers of E. coli and the potential benefits of subsurface microorganisms. In addition, this issue marks our second full year of publication. Thank you for your continued readership and support!
Every year, a large number of Americans come into direct dietary contact with E. coli, a bacterium that can easily make people sick when it is consumed, and can prove fatal for some of those victims. We should not be astonished to learn that this dietary contact takes place, considering that all of us, without exception, are in direct internal contact with E. coli on a daily basis. That is because every one of our bowel movements contains billions of E. coli bacteria. In turn, that is one reason — or perhaps billions of reasons — why it is so critical for people to thoroughly wash their hands after using the restroom, particularly for workers in the foodservice industries.
Escherichia coli, usually referred to by its abbreviated name, is a bacterium that has hundreds of strains, most of which are generally harmless to most healthy individuals. Countless such bacteria are found throughout the intestines of humans and cows, and spreads within both species in the same manner, namely, contamination through fecal matter. However, there is an especially virulent strain known as O157:H7, which is the culprit behind most life-threatening and publicized outbreaks in the United States, including the contaminated spinach that has killed and sickened numerous Americans during 2006.
Humans are easily able to prevent the spread of O157:H7 and its more benign cousins, through diligent hygienE. Cows, on the other hand (or hoof), do not have the intellectual capacity for thorough cleaning after a bowel movement — not unlike some of their less intelligent human counterparts. Moreover, the cows found in the typical commercial feedlot are not cleaned after they have made another "cow chip". Even worse, the tons of waste matter is usually poorly disposed of, if at all, in huge cesspools. This results in cows standing in the waste ankle-deep, and it splattering up, thus practically guaranteeing that E. coli will quickly spread among a herd that can number in the thousands. Such airborne bacteria can get onto udders and thereby into milk, as well as get into the cow's intestines and thereby onto meat as part of the slaughtering process. In addition, waste that is not composted can infect manure and thus the crops grown using that manure. It can also leach into the water system, which is one reason why environmentalists point to these huge feedlots as a major risk to the health of our potable water supplies.
Raising cattle using more environmentally responsible methods, would help to dramatically reduce the spread and impact of E. coli. Free-range cattle typically have lower levels of E. coli versus their counterparts locked into small and filthy pens, partly because the former have far less contact with each other's waste. Moreover, grass-fed cattle have lower levels of E. coli O157:H7 versus their corn-fed counterparts on huge feedlots, partly because the corn increases the acidity of their digestive juices, which promotes O157:H7.
Moving from the production phase to the consumption phase, ecologically sensibility offers further rewards. Some consumers may assume that organic foods would be higher in E. coli, including the more dangerous strains. But actually the opposite may be true, because the majority of organic farmers compost the manure, which kills most E. coli. In addition, certified organic farmers are not allowed to use raw manure for 90 days prior to the harvest of food intended for human consumption.
Most Americans eating hamburgers in fast food restaurants, may give little thought as to how the cheap beef used in producing those burgers can have the ultimate consequence of making the lettuce in the hamburger quite expensive from a health standpoint. Some people shoving those supersized time bombs into their mouths, may end up paying the ultimate price — further down the road, from cardiac disease, or much earlier, from E. coli. This illustrates how life at even the smallest scale can have a tremendous impact upon human life.
Mother Nature possesses countless ways to keep the cycle of life — the phases of birth, life, death, and reuse — in continuous motion. One example of this is the bacteria and microbes found in soil, which, along with other elements in the natural world, help to break down flora and fauna that have reached the ends of their lives, and are ready to be disassembled into their constituent parts, to then be recycled by those members just above them on the great food web.
The microbe's ability to take in substances of all types, and convert them into less toxic forms, is often referred to as "bioremediation". Perhaps the best-known use occurred during the 1980s, when certain types of microbes were used to clean up toxic organic materials — primarily fuel and solvent spills. In essence, the hungry bacteria ate the fuels, by breaking down the long-chain hydrocarbons, and "breathed" in the solvents, turning them into nontoxic forms.
Now that power for natural detoxification is being directed towards the nuclear contaminants produced by numerous American energy companies, mining companies, and military weapons programs. Throughout the United States, there are dozens of federal laboratories that are facing the daunting task of somehow neutralizing all of this toxic waste. If current research yields results, then they may get a tremendous amount of help from the lowly bacterium. Civil and environmental engineering researchers at Stanford University and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are focusing on the toxic uranium often detected in groundwater found near uranium mines or uranium enrichment sites — groundwater that can easily contaminate surface water, which then threatens all organisms that depend upon that surface water.
In the past, the contaminated soil would be excavated, and the contaminated water would be pumped out and treated artificially. But these approaches invariably caused other disposal problems, and were also quite expensive. As an alternative, the researchers have found subsurface microorganisms, already naturally occurring in the soil, which are capable of converting the dissolved uranium into a more solid form that is far less likely to be spread by water. So far, this approach has proven most effective against the more highly contaminated sites. Yet the results can be startling. For instance, the researchers were able to process groundwater containing more than 1000 times the regulated limit for uranium for potable water, and, utilizing those microorganisms, effectively reduce the uranium levels down to the drinking water limit.
At this point, the processed uranium waste is solid enough not to flow like a liquid; but the process is hoped to be taken even further, whereby the end result will be a full solid, which can be handled and disposed of even more easily. It will be a case of powerful bacteria and microbes exchanging their usual role of breaking down solids to be taken up again by plants, and instead creating solids from contaminated water output by nuclear power plants.
With the fall season bringing cooler temperatures throughout most of the northern hemisphere, including the United States, it's time to update your wardrobe with some new T-shirts, which can be ideal for layering, as well as keeping wool and other itchy materials away from one's skin. Peaceful Valley Greetings is proud to announce short-sleeved and long-sleeved T-shirts with new fall designs, all of which can be seen on the company's spruced up Web site.
The 2006 holiday season is fast approaching, and here is an opportunity to stock up on environmentally friendly greeting cards, before the usual stampede that often leaves the most tasteful designs in short supply. Peaceful Valley Greetings is offering a wide selection of tree-free and recycled paper holiday cards — including new designs by Mary Engelbreit, Debbie Mumm, and others. Most intriguing are the new "Grow-A-Note" cards, which have seeds of wildflowers embedded into their hand-made, recycled paper. When the recipient is finished reading a card, it can be planted directly in the ground, or the seeds can be sprouted before planting. Instructions for planting and growing are included with each card, and the paper acts as a mulch for the seeds.
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