Spotting Illegal Toxic Waste From Space

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Digging into sites that are suspected to be toxic waste dumps is expensive and potentially dangerous to nearby water supplies, so investigators want a way to spot toxic waste before diving in. Now, they have satellites on their side to do just that, utilizing ground-penetrating radar and other remote sensing techniques. Alastair Ruffell, a forensic geologist at Queen's University, Belfast in the UK, has been able to nab criminals in three cases so far that use GPR, New Scientist reports.

"Soft, diggable, scented peat bogs make an attractive place to bury waste, but geophysical surveys can see right through them," Ruffell says.

Sonia Silvestri works with an Italian construction firm and is also doing research on the use of GPR for finding toxic waste, specifically the transient electromagnetic method which detects electric and magnetic fields either through a coil pressed on the ground, or above the surface as a helicopter hovers above with detection equipment.

It is her research that shows that toxic waste has the potential to even be spotted from space, by scanning images for disturbed vegetation near likely locations, such as industrial areas. So far, she has a 50% accuracy rate, with 17 of 34 spots identified as potential dump sites coming up as containing toxic waste.

Illegally dumping toxic waste is a huge problem for groundwater contamination and they can cost a fortune in cleanup efforts. Tracking down the culprits and making it harder to get away with illegal dumping will be a big help in preventing it from happening in the first place.

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