The Riverwest Sunflower Brigade: A Creative Approach to Brownfield Decontamination

Sunflower Powerby Sonya Jongsma Knauss

After holistic health practitioner Susan Palmieri wrote a letter to the Riverwest Currents early last month to suggest planting sunflowers on the Johnson Controls property to aid in contaminant remediation, the letter was posted to the neighborhood-wide e-mail list, RNAmail. The letter generated a flurry of responses, and a collection of neighbors calling themselves the Sunflower Brigade is organizing to explore the possibilities. Planting sunflowers is a form of phytoremediation -a process that takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. Palmieri went on to list several sources to back up her suggestion that the Johnson Controls property, located between Weil and Bremen from Auer to Concordia in the northern part of Riverwest, could benefit from the planting of sunflowers. According to Palmieri’s research, one place that has relied heavily on sunflowers to help remove contaminants is Chernobyl. A report that can be found online at reads: “In February, 1996, Phytotech, Inc., a Princeton, NJ-based company, reported that it had developed transgenic strains of sunflowers, Helianthus sp., that could remove as much as 95% of toxic contaminants in as little as 24 hours. Subsequently, Helianthus was planted on a Styrofoam raft at one end of a contaminated pool near Chernobyl, and in 12 days the cesium concentrations within the roots were reportedly 8,000 times that of the water, while the strontium concentrations were 2,000 times that of the water.” While the pollutants at Chernobyl and those at the Johnson Controls site may be worlds apart as far as contamination levels, Palmieri and fellow sunflower brigadiers feel it can’t hurt to try. Plantings of industrial hemp have also been used in some places to remove toxins and contaminants from soils. In response to some neighbors’ concerns about wildlife eating the sunflowers and getting poisoned, Palmieri noted that the sunflowers can be covered with netting or cheesecloth to minimize harmful effects on birds and squirrels. But she admitted that there was some risk to animals. Douglas D. Randall, a University of Missouri biochemist, has noted in an article in Plant Sites and Parks magazine, that the traditional way of treating contaminated soil often carries an incredibly high price tag. “But with phytoremediation, a company could extract the contaminants at a fraction of the cost while letting the plants do the majority of the work,” he wrote in an article… “It’s much less expensive than other methods — like digging it up and hauling it off — and I think as it becomes more widely accepted as a cleanup method, a lot of people will use it…” It remains to be seen whether the soil, which has already been excavated, “cooked,” and refilled, would benefit from the effects of sunflower remediation. Another option would be to find a way to plant sunflowers so they could suck contaminants out of the water, far below the surface. By the way, the sunflower is also an international symbol for a world free of nuclear weapons. To join the Sunflower Brigade e-mail list, send an e-mail to Dr. Susan Palmieri, Herbologist & Doctor of Integrative Medicine, at . Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 4 – April 2003
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss