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Your Environment. Your Health.

University of Pennsylvania

Superfund Research Program

Remediation of Asbestos Particles

Project Leader: Brenda B. Casper
Co-Investigator: Reto Giere
Grant Number: P42ES023720
Funding Period: 2014-2020
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Project Summary (2014-2020)

Current state-of-the-art treatment of asbestos-contaminated sites is to move the asbestos and/or cap the site. This research examines whether chemical alteration of asbestos particles by plants and/or fungi, either directly or indirectly via plant exudates or fungal metabolites, may be useful for bioremediation of asbestos-contaminated sites. The project is motivated by evidence that fungi (Fusarium oxysporum and Verticillium leptobactrum) can remove iron atoms from asbestos particles, rendering them less toxic. Willenbring and her research team will target plant species that are known to be metal hyper-accumulators or are native to soils naturally high in heavy metals, such as serpentine soils, and whose roots form mutualist relationships with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). The researchers hypothesize that it is possible to discover and quantify new ways to remediate asbestos sites in situ using a combination of hyper-accumulating plants and plants native to serpentine soils coupled with their associated AMF.

The researchers are testing this hypothesis using three specific strategies:

  • Determine new ways to remediate asbestos piles using iron hyper-accumulating plants, plants native to serpentine soils with AMF associations, and the exudates and metabolites fundamentally responsible for the chemical and physical alteration.
  • Validate the effect, rate and chemical mechanisms of asbestos fiber remediation by chemical analysis and spectroscopy techniques and to produce remediated fibers in suspension to apply to cells in the Animal Models of Mesothelioma project.
  • Test directly, in animal model systems, whether remediation of asbestos abrogates its carcinogenic potential in vivo in the Chemoprevention of Asbestos-induced Lung Diseases project, and to determine the size reduction and surface charge change of remediated fibers, which applies to the Mobility and Fate of Asbestos Particles and the Social Determinants of Risk and Attitudes About Asbestos in a Superfund Environmental Justice (EJ) Community projects.


The researchers are determining whether soil microbial constituents at the Ambler Superfund site and the relative abundance of different AMF species in greenhouse treatments respond to the presence of asbestos, providing clues to effective agents for bioremediation. Highly controlled greenhouse experiments coupled with Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy, X-ray Diffraction characterization and Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometry document the efficacy of different plant species and combinations of mycorrhizal fungal species in removing iron from asbestos and destroying the fibrous structure. Where asbestos is altered at the greatest rates, high throughput DNA sequencing and pyrosequencing is used to quantity the relative abundance of the different AMF species. The same technique is used to determine how the AMF community at the Ambler superfund site responds to local concentration of asbestos. This information from the site will inform the greenhouse experiments.

The researchers believe that the research will produce new remediation strategies for asbestos at Superfund and Brownfields sites, and will eventually lead to marketing such a technique for other sites of asbestos contamination. If clear remediation results in this trial, a larger translation of the results will be pursued through an application for an NIH Small Business Grant. The project’s results have direct impact on the Mobility and Fate of Asbestos Particles project and the researchers communicate how their asbestos remediation affects asbestos fiber size, transport and aggregate formation. They work closely to confirm reduced toxicity of remediated fibers with the animal model studies in the Animal Models of Mesothelioma project, and they take advantage of the in vitro asbestos-induced cell injury models developed in the Chemoprevention of Asbestos-induced Lung Diseases project to compare the activity of untreated and remediated asbestos fibers. The researchers also interact significantly with the Administration, Biostatistics and Translation Cores.

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