Clams Could Become The Newest Tool In Oil Spill Cleanup

clams in a pile photo

Photo by scott*eric via Flickr Creative Commons

Natural solutions for oil spills, especially the recent Gulf spill, is at the top of every environmentalist's list. And while everything from mushrooms to bacteria are being explored, there is one underestimated animal that might prove to be helpful: the clam. Specifically, the very common Rangia clam that lives in brackish water along marshes. As filter feeders, they could become the next tool for coastline cleanups. Homeland Security Newswire reports that researchers at Southeastern Louisiana University are now looking in to how the Rangia clam can become an oil sponge.

The article states, "Caitlyn Guice, a junior chemistry major from Prairieville, has received a $2,300 Louisiana Sea Grant Undergraduate Research Opportunities Grant to study the ability of the clam to remove hydrocarbon pollutants from natural water -- like the oil that polluted the Gulf of Mexico last summer. She will be working under her faculty mentor, Phillip Voegel, assistant professor of chemistry."

Voegel points out that clams, as bottom-dwelling filter feeders that can collect hydrocarbons in their flesh, can intake oil-laced water, absorb the nutrients and oil, and spit out clean water while keeping the hydrocarbons in their bodies.

The issue, of course, is that while they're not a food source for humans, the clams are food for several other animals like drum fish and crabs. The impact of using bottom-of-the-food-chain animals as sponges might have unfortunate effects as the pollutants work their way up the chain. What Voegel suggests is large caged pallets of clams placed in oil-affected areas, where they could clean up the water without other animals feeding on them.

Of course, questions including the efficacy of pallets of clams, the impact on the species, and the impact on the ecosystems where the clams are collected are all things to consider within the study.

"Looking at bioconcentration of hydrocarbons by shellfish in this manner is a complete shift in thinking from the typical focus on food safety," said Voegel. "Successful completion of this project will provide new knowledge on the abilities of the Rangia clam to concentrate pollutants from the water and determine if and under what environmental conditions, this ability could be applied to the bioremediation of oil-contaminated sites."

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