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Pronounced /ˌfʌɪtəʊrɪmiːdɪˈeɪʃn/Help with pronunciation

Though this is a cumbersome word that hasn’t yet reached any of my dictionaries, it has become a moderately common technical term in recent years because of its environmental implications. Phytoremediation is just beginning practical application after years of research, and the word is now starting to turn up in non-specialist areas such as newspaper articles.

It refers to a variety of techniques using plants and trees to clean up sites that are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead or cadmium, or with organic compounds like pesticides or solvents. In the case of the metals, species are grown which are known to concentrate the contaminants in their tissues; plants can then be harvested and burnt to release the pollutant, which can often be recycled. Organic pollutants are often treated with plants that take them up and destroy them as part of their normal metabolic processes. Phytoremediation can be a lot cheaper than conventional methods, which usually involve removing the topsoil layer completely and replacing it with uncontaminated soil, but it is usually much slower.

The word is a combination of the prefix phyto-, “plant” (from the Greek phutos) with remediation, the action of remedying something, especially environmental damage.

With international conferences, coverage in scientific and trade journals, and industry and government-sponsored implementation, phytoremediation is a significant and growing niche in the environmental marketplace.

Environmental Technology, Sep. 1998

Because they also absorb and concentrate toxic metals, such as lead, these natural collectors could help to decontaminate industrial waste sites, a process known as phytoremediation.

Economist, Oct 1998

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Jan. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-phy1.htm
Last modified: 16 January 1999.