Challenging Global Waste Management – Bioremediation to Detoxify Asbestos

Shannon L. Wallis, Edward A. Emmett, Robyn Hardy, Brenda B. Casper, Dan J. Blanchon, Joseph R. Testa, Craig W. Menges, Cédric Gonneau, Douglas J. Jerolmack, Ali Seiphoori, Gregor Steinhorn, Terri Ann Berry

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


As the 21st century uncovers ever-increasing volumes of asbestos and asbestos-contaminated waste, we need a new way to stop ‘grandfather’s problem’ from becoming that of our future generations. The production of inexpensive, mechanically strong, heat resistant building materials containing asbestos has inevitably led to its use in many public and residential buildings globally. It is therefore not surprising that since the asbestos boom in the 1970s, some 30 years later, the true extent of this hidden danger was exposed. Yet, this severely toxic material continues to be produced and used in some countries, and in others the disposal options for historic uses – generally landfill – are at best unwieldy and at worst insecure. We illustrate the global scale of the asbestos problem via three case studies which describe various removal and/or end disposal issues. These case studies from both industrialised and island nations demonstrate the potential for the generation of massive amounts of asbestos contaminated soil. In each case, the final outcome of the project was influenced by factors such as cost and land availability, both increasing issues, worldwide. The reduction in the generation of asbestos containing materials will not absolve us from the necessity of handling and disposal of contaminated land. Waste treatment which relies on physico-chemical processes is expensive and does not contribute to a circular model economy ideal. Although asbestos is a mineral substance, there are naturally occurring biological-mediated processes capable of degradation (such as bioweathering). Therefore, low energy options, such as bioremediation, for the treatment for asbestos contaminated soils are worth exploring. We outline evidence pointing to the ability of microbe and plant communities to remove from asbestos the iron that contributes to its carcinogenicity. Finally, we describe the potential for a novel concept of creating ecosystems over asbestos landfills (‘activated landfills’) that utilize nature’s chelating ability to degrade this toxic product effectively.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science
StatePublished - Mar 4 2020


  • asbestos
  • bioremediation
  • carcinogenicity
  • hazardous waste treatment
  • waste minimisation


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