Scientist says nature’s ‘skeleton key’ could be solution to toxic chemical spills and save East Palestine

Tradd Cotter, a mushroom expert of nearly 40 years, told Fox News that using fungi may be effective in cleaning up the chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio.

Mushrooms could be a safer — and cheaper — solution to cleaning up the chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, and could carve a new response plan for future toxic waste incidents, according to a fungi expert.

“This will happen again,” Tradd Cotter, a microbiologist and mushroom expert, told Fox News. “If we could in Ohio do some testing and give mushrooms a chance to prove that this could work, it would benefit towns across the world because this happens everywhere and we need good science.”

On Feb. 3, about 50 cars on a freight train derailed in the 4,700-person Ohio town. A number of the cars contained and released hazardous material, including the colorless toxic gas vinyl chloride. Residents were initially evacuated until workers burned the chemicals to prevent an explosion. Over a million gallons of contaminated water and 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil have been removed from the location. 


Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance sent a letter to federal and state environmental agencies last month warning of the dangers of dioxins that may have been created by the vinyl chloride burning, which can cause cancer and various other health problems if exposed.

Cotter, who published the book “Organic Mushroom Farming and “Mycoremediation,” recommended a process called “mycoremediation” to clean up polluted water and soil at the spill site rather than moving toxins to another location. He said the process is both safer and more cost-effective than moving contaminated material.

“True remediation, I have to say, would be not moving the chemicals like most companies do,” he said pointing out that many firms tasked with cleaning up chemical spills move the toxins to a disposal site in a different state. “The locals don’t even know that Ohio waste is coming to their town.”

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“True remediation is removing the problem, to treat it immediately,” he continued. “Mushrooms are really good at dissembling those compounds and making them inert.”

Cotter also warned that more spills could occur while moving toxic waste.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine previously told Fox News that the operation to clean the area have been running nonstop, with thousands of trucks leaving the site. Sen. Mike Braun and Rep. Jim Baird last week expressed concerns about toxic waste being moved from East Palestine to Michigan and their home state, Indiana.

“Any material from this disaster being transferred to Indiana overseen by this Biden EPA is seriously concerning,” Braun said in a statement to Fox News.


Cotter said he is confident that disposal doesn’t work.

“The truth of the matter is that nature knows how to fix things,” he said. “It’s been doing this for millions of years.”

“It has been very good at decontaminating soil, creating soil, creating trees and detoxifying water and compounds before humans came along,” the microbiologist continued.

Mycoremediation, according to Cotter, is the process of using fungi and bacteria to remediate soil and water by using their enzymes to break down the molecular structure of chemicals and dangerous substances.

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“Those mushroom enzymes snip apart these molecules and make them biotransform so they can turn into something that’s even more dangerous or something that’s less dangerous for the environment,” said Cotter. “Ultimately you want to be left with water and carbon dioxide.”

While using mushrooms to clean up a chemical spill have not been widely used, Cotter said they have proven effective in labs and have been used to clean up oil spills.

 For liquid waste, Cotter recommends putting contaminated water in large tanks and percolating it through different filters every twelve hours that use fungi.

“That works really, really well for chemical contamination,” he said, noting that in laboratories, “we’ve seen results within 12 to 24 hours.”


Cotter said solid waste should be mixed with wood chips and fungi in open-air dumpsters with fans.

“When the mushrooms get hungry, they start to snip apart the molecules of the contaminant,” he said. “They basically sweat chemical scissors called enzymes, and they will resort to snipping these molecules apart into atoms and molecules they can use as a food source.”

According to Cotter, bacteria also play an essential role in the process. He compared the decontamination process to a party, where mushrooms would be the first to arrive while bacteria pull all-nighters.

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“The mushrooms bring wine to the party,” Cotter said. “They sense the chemical contamination dynamically” and “can start to snip apart the molecules.”

Then the mushrooms “recruit the bacteria” and “the bacteria are up all night partying,” he continued.

An example of an effective mushroom for this process, Cotter says, are the commonly eaten oyster mushrooms.

“A cultivated oyster mushroom that everyone eats is a very efficient mushroom,” he said. “You have a key that can open up your car, that can open up your apartment or house. But oyster mushrooms — some strains have a skeleton key — so they can open up everything.”

Cotter also believes that mycoremediation is also the most cost-effective way to handle a cleanup because it is natural.

“Disposal and incineration seem like the cheapest options, but honestly it’s not,” he said. “Mycoremediation I think is $50 to $70 per ton of material which is far cheaper than the disposal and incineration cost.”

Cotter added that he doesn’t believe there is any downside to trying mycoremediation in East Palestine and studying the results to help with future cleanups. 

“There’s nothing to lose, there’s no downside to using fungi,” he said. “There’s no collateral damage to the environment or the people by using fungi at all.”

“The best thing for the people and the environment moving forward would be to mycoremediate this soil and water,” Cotter added.

To watch the full interview with Cotter, click here.

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