Clean water is perhaps the biggest key to keeping us alive, and scientists are forever testing new laboratory methods for transforming non-potable water into a life-sustaining fluid. However, all the elaborate chemistry is sometimes no substitute for the mysteries of nature. Researchers are now learning about a water purification technique used by North American natives in the Southwest and Mexico for perhaps thousands of years: the gooey inner flesh of common cactus plants.
Inside the flesh of a cactus leaf is a gooey core called mucilage, which keeps the plant hydrated. It’s the sugars in that innermost goop that have been found to be an effective filter of contaminants like arsenic and chemical pollution from water. Researchers are looking into this method as an earth-friendly solution for filtering contaminated water to provide clean drinking water, and it looks promising.
Boiling the inner mucilage of a prickly pear cactus with contaminated water forces the pollutants to rise to the surface, making it possible to skim it off. This is the method people have been using in Mexico for ages, even though scientists have only recently begun to understand how it works. In a research laboratory, scientists determined that the mucilage removed not only sediment, but also arsenic and bacteria. The approach was tested following the 2006 Haiti earthquake, and appeared a successful method for filtering potable water for the storm’s victims.
Because of the cactus mucilage’s ability to attract contaminants using a natural process, this method of cleaning water is completely environmentally friendly. Commonly used chemical dispersants are capable of cleaning up pollution and oil spills, but they often cause a host of problems for the local ecosystem. Researchers have found that cactus mucilage would be just as effective as chemical dispersants in cleaning up spills, but without all the other environmental destruction.