Journal of Environmental Protection, 2010, 1, 251-260
doi:10.4236/jep.2010.13030 Published Online September 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded
Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for
Man & Environment
Rajiv K. Sinha, Krunal Chauhan, Dalsukh Valani, Vinod Chandran, Brijal Kiran Soni, Vishal Patel
Griffith School of Engineering (Environment), Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.
Received April 15th, 2010; revised May 20th, 2010; accepted May 22nd, 2010.
Earthworms promises to provide cheaper solutions to several social, economic and environmental problems plaguing
the human society. Earthworms can safely manage all municipal and industrial organic wastes including sewage sludge
and divert them from ending up in the landfills. Their body work as a biofilter and they can purify and also disin-
fect and detoxify municipal and several industrial wastewater. They reduce the BOD & COD loads and the TDSS of
wastewater significantly. They can even remove the EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) from sewage which is not
removed by the conventional sewage treatments plants. Earthworms can bio-accumulate and bio-transform many
chemical contaminants including heavy metals and organic pollutants in soil and clean-up the contaminated lands for
re-development. Earthworms restore & improve soil fertility by their secretions (growth hormones) and excreta (ver-
micast with beneficial soil microbes) & boost crop productivity’. They have potential to replace the environmentally
destructive chemical fertilizers from farm production. The protein rich earthworm biomass is being used for produc-
tion of nutritive feed materials for fishery, dairy & poultry industries. They are also being used as raw materials for
rubber, lubricant and detergent industries. The bioactive compounds isolated from earthworms are finding new uses in
production of life saving medicinesfor cardiovascular diseases and cancer cure.
Keywords: Detoxifying, Disinfecting, Waste Degradation, Wastewater Purification, Soil Decontamination, Soil Fertility,
Crop Production, Earthworms Medicines, Nutritive Feed
1. Introduction
A revolution is unfolding in vermiculture studies for
multiple uses in environmental protection and sustainable
development. Earthworms have over 600 million years of
experience as ‘environmental managers’ in the ecosys-
tem. Vermiculture scientists all over the world knew
about the role of earthworms as ‘waste managers’, as
‘soil managers & fertility improvers’ and ‘plant growth
promoters’ for long time. But some comparatively ‘new
discoveries’ about their role in ‘treatment of municipal
and industrial wastewaters’, ‘remediation of chemically
contaminated soils’ and ‘development of life saving
medicines’, ‘nutritive feed materials’ for fishery & dairy
industries and raw materials for ‘rubber, lubricants, soaps
& detergent industries’ have revolutionized the studies
into vermiculture.
Earthworms promises to provide cheaper solutions to
several social, economic and environmental problems of
human society. They are both ‘protective’ & ‘productive’
for environment and society. They protect the environ-
ment (by remedifying the contaminated soil, degrading
the solid wastes and purifying wastewater) and also pro-
duce nutritive ‘protein rich feed materials’ for cattle and
‘organic fertilizers’ for the farmers to grow safe and
chemical-free organic foods for society [1].
2. The Biology & Ecology of Earthworms
Earthworms are long, narrow, cylindrical, bilaterally sy-
mmetrical, segmented animals without bones. Usually
the life span of an earthworm is about 3 to 7 years de-
pending upon the type of species and the ecological situa-
tion. Earthworms harbor millions of ‘nitrogen-fixing’ and
‘decomposer microbes’ in their gut. They have ‘chemo-
receptors’ which aid in search of food. Their body con-
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for Man & Environment
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
tains 65% protein (70-80% high quality ‘lysine rich pro-
tein’ on a dry weight basis), 14% fats, 14% carbohydrates
and 3% ash [2-4].
Earthworms occur in diverse habitats specially those
which are dark and moist. They can tolerate a tempera-
ture range between 5 to 29. A temperature of 20
to 25 and a moisture of 60-75% is optimum for good
worm function. Earthworms multiply very rapidly. Stud-
ies indicate that they double their number at least every
60-70 days. Given the optimal conditions of moisture,
temperature and feeding materials earthworms can mul-
tiply by 28 i.e. 256 worms every 6 months from a single
individual. Each of the 256 worms multiplies in the same
proportion to produce a huge biomass of worms in a
short time. The total life-cycle of the worms is about 220
days. They produce 300-400 young ones within this life
period [5]. Earthworms continue to grow throughout
their life.
3. Earthworms: The Protector of Human
Earthworms are ‘unheralded soldiers of mankind’ created
by Mother Nature. Although the great visionary scientist
Sir Charles Darwin indicated about them long back but
very few biologists really realized that. Now it is being
realized and revived all over the world and services of
earthworms are being utilized with a technological ap-
proach. Some of the virtues of earthworms given below
3.1. Tremendous Abilities & Ecological
Adaptation for Survival in Harsh
Earthworms can tolerate toxic chemicals in environment.
After the Seveso chemical plant explosion in 1976 in
Italy, when vast inhabited area was contaminated with
certain chemicals including the extremely toxic TCDD
(2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin) several fauna per-
ished but for the earthworms that were alone able to sur-
vive [6].
3.2. Tolerate and Bio-Accumulate Toxic Soil
Chemicals & Contaminants from
Several studies have found that earthworms effectively
bio-accumulate or biodegrade several organic and inor-
ganic chemicals including ‘heavy metals’, ‘organochlo-
rine pesticide’ and micropollutants like ‘polycyclic aro-
matic hydrocarbons’ (PAHs) residues in the medium in
which it inhabits [7,8]. Earthworms that survived in the
‘Seveso Disaster’ (1976) ingested TCDD contaminated
soils. They were shown to bio-accumulate dioxin in their
tissues and concentrate it on average 14.5 fold [6].
Earthworms have also been reported to bio-accumulate
‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ (EDCs) from sewage.
Significantly high concentrations of EDCs (dibutylphtha-
late, dioctylphthalate, bisphenol-A and 17 -estrdiol) in
tissues of earthworms (E. fetida) living in sewage perco-
lating filter beds and also in garden soil [9].
E. fetida was used as the test organisms for different
soil contaminants and several reports indicated that E.
fetida tolerated 1.5% crude oil (containing several toxic
organic pollutants) and survived in this environment
[10,11]. Studies shows that earthworms can tolerate and
bio-accumulate high concentrations of heavy metals like
cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), lead (Pb) copper (Cu),
manganese (Mn), calcium (Ca), iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn)
in their tissues without affecting their physiology and this
particularly when the metals are mostly non-bioavailable.
The species Lumbricus terrestris, L. rubellus and D. ru-
bida was found to bio-accumulate very high levels of
lead (Pb) and Cadmium (Cd) in their tissues [7].
3.3. Destroy Pathogens and Disinfect the
Earthworms routinely devour on the protozoa, bacteria
and fungus as food in any waste materials or soil where
they inhabit. They seem to realize instinctively that an-
aerobic bacteria and fungi are undesirable and so feed
upon them preferentially, thus arresting their prolifera-
tion. More recently, Dr. Elaine Ingham has found in her
research that worms living in pathogen-rich materials
(e.g. sewage and sludge), when dissected, show no evi-
dence of pathogens beyond 5 mm of their gut. This con-
firms that something inside the worms destroys the path-
ogens, and excreta (vermicast) becomes pathogen-free
[5,6]. In the intestine of earthworms some bacteria &
fungus (Pencillium and Aspergillus) have also been found
[12]. The earthworms also release coelomic fluids that
have anti-bacterial properties and destroy all pathogens
in the waste biomass [13]. They produce ‘antibiotics’ and
kills the pathogenic organisms in the waste and soil
where they inhabit and render it virtually sterile. It was
reported that the removal of pathogens, faecal coliforms
(E. coli), Salmonella spp., enteric viruses and helminth
ova from sewage and sludge appear to be much more
rapid when they are processed by E. fetida. Of all E. coli
and Salmonella are greatly reduced [14].
In another study the pathogen die-off in vermicompost-
ing of sewage sludge spiked with E. coli, S. typhimurium
and E. faecalis at the 1.6-5.4 × 106 CFU/g, 7.25 × 105
CFU/g and 3-4 × 104 CFU/g respectively. The compost-
ing was done with different bulking materials such as
lawn clippings, sawdust, sand and sludge alone for a total
period of 9 months to test the pathogen safety of the
product for handling. It was observed that a safe product
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for Man & Environment
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
was achieved in 4-5 months of vermicomposting and the
product remained the same quality without much reap-
pearance of pathogens after in the remaining months of
the test [15]. Other studies also confirmed significant
human pathogen reduction in biosolids vermicomposted
by earthworms. Pathogens like enteric viruses, parasitic
eggs and E. coli were reduced to safe levels in sludge
vermicast [16-18]. Studies also revealed that the earth-
worms reduced the population of Salmonella spp. to less
than 3 CFU/gm of vermicomposted sludge. There were
no fecal coliforms and Shigella spp. and no eggs of
helminths in the treated sludge. [16,19,20].
3.4. Low Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions by
Vermicomposting of Waste with
Emission of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2),
methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) in waste man-
agement programs of both garbage & sewage has be-
come a major global issue today in the wake of increas-
ing visible impacts of global warming. Biodegradation of
organic waste either by composting or when disposed in
landfills has long been known to generate methane (CH4)
and nitrous oxide (N2O) resulting from the slow anaero-
bic decomposition of waste organics over several years
[21]. Molecule to molecule, CH4 is 20-22 times and N2O
is 296-310 times more powerful GHG than the CO2.
Studies have also indicated high emissions of nitrous
oxide (N2O) in proportion to the amount of food waste
used, and methane (CH4) is also emitted in high amounts
if the composting piles contain cattle manure. [22-25].
Studies have established that vermicomposting of
wastes by earthworms significantly reduce the total emi-
ssions of greenhouse gases in terms of CO2 equivalent,
especially the highly powerful GHG nitrous oxide (N2O).
Worms significantly increase the proportion of ‘aerobic
to anaerobic decomposition’ in the compost pile by bur-
rowing and aerating actions leaving very few anaerobic
areas in the pile, and thus resulting in a significant de-
crease in methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and also
volatile sulfur compounds which are readily emitted from
the conventional (microbial) composting process [26].
Analysis of vermicompost samples has shown generally
higher levels of available nitrogen (N) as compared to the
conventional compost samples made from similar feed-
stock. This implies that the vermicomposting process by
worms is more efficient at retaining nitrogen (N) rather
than releasing it as N2O.
Our studies also showed that on average, aerobic, an-
aerobic and vermicomposting systems emitted 504, 694
and 463 CO2-e/m2/hour respectively. This is significantly
much less than the landfills emission which is 3640
CO2-e/m2/hour due to the extremely anaerobic conditions
existing in the landfills. Vermicomposting emitted mini-
mum of N2O-1.17 mg/m2/hour, as compared to Aerobic
Composting (1.48 mg/m2/hour) and Anaerobic Com-
posting (1.59 mg/m2/hour). Hence, earthworms can play
a good part in the strategy of greenhouse gas reduction
and mitigation in the disposal of global MSW [21,27].
3.5. Earthworms Combat Soil Salinity &
Improve Fertility of Sodic Soils
Studies indicate that Esinea fetida can tolerate soils
nearly half as salty as seawater i.e. 15 gm/kg of soil and
also improve its biology and chemistry. (Average sea-
water salinity is around 35 g/L). Farmers at Phaltan in
Satara district of Maharashtra, India, applied live earth-
worms to their sugarcane crop grown on saline soils irri-
gated by saline ground water. The yield was 125 tones/
hectare of sugarcane and there was marked improvement
in soil chemistry. Within a year there was 37% more ni-
trogen, 66% more phosphates and 10% more potash. The
chloride content was less by 46% [28,29]. In another
study there was good production of potato (Solanum tu-
berosum) by application of vermicompost in a reclaimed
sodic soil in India. The sodicity (ESP) of the soil was
also reduced from initial 96.74 to 73.68 in just about 12
weeks. The average available nitrogen (N) content of the
soil increased from initial 336.00 kg/ha to 829.33 kg/ha
4. Role of Earthworms in Environmental
Protection & Food Production
4.1. Safe Management of Municipal & Industrial
Solid Wastes While Diverting them from
Landfills & Converting into Valuable
Resource (Nutritive Fertilizer)
We are facing the escalating economic and environ-
mental cost of dealing with current and future generation
of mounting municipal solid wastes. Millions of tons of
MSW generated from the modern society are ending up
in the landfills everyday, creating extraordinary eco-
nomic and environmental problems for the local gov-
ernment to manage and monitor them for environmental
safety (emission of greenhouse and toxic gases and
leachate discharge threatening ground water contamina-
tion) [31]. Construction of secured engineered landfills
incurs 20-25 million U.S. dollars before the first load of
waste is dumped. According to Australian Bureau of Sta-
tistics over the past 5 years the cost of landfill disposal of
waste has increased from AU $ 29 to AU $ 65 per ton of
waste in Australia. During 2002-2003, waste manage-
ment services within Australia cost AU $ 2458.2 millions.
In 2002-03 Australians generated 32.3 million tonnes of
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for Man & Environment
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
MSW of which 17.4 mt i.e. about 54% ended up in land-
fills [32].
A serious cause of concern today is the emission of
powerful greenhouse gases (GHG) resulting from the
disposal of MSW either in the landfills or from their
management by composting [21]. The Australian Green-
house Office reported that disposal of MSW (primarily in
landfills) contributed 17 million tonnes CO2-e of GHG in
Australia in 2005, equivalent to the emissions from 4
millions cars or 2.6% of the national GHG emissions
[33]. Vermicomposting of all biodegradable ‘organic
wastes’ is emerging as a new tool in all developed world
to divert large portion of community wastes (over 70%)
from landfills and also reduce the GHG emissions sig-
nificantly as discussed above [27].
Earthworms have real potential to both increase the
rate of aerobic decomposition and composting of organic
matter, and also to stabilize the organic residues in them.
Earthworm participation enhances natural biodegradation
and decomposition of organic waste from 60 to 80% over
the conventional composting. Given the optimum condi-
tions of temperature (20-30) and moisture (60-70%),
about 5 kg of worms (numbering approx.10,000) can ver-
miprocess 1 ton of waste into vermi-compost in just 30
days [4].
4.1.1. Detoxified and Disinfected Nutritive
End-Products (Vermicompost)
The earthworms ingest and bio-accumulate toxic materi-
als, selectively devour on harmful microbes (pathogens)
in the waste biomass. The end product is more homoge-
nous, ‘detoxified’ and ‘disinfected’, richer in ‘plant-avai-
lable nutrients & humus’ and significantly low contami-
4.1.2. Role of Earthworms in Safe Management of
Environmentally Hazardous Wastes
Earthworms can degrade ‘fly-ash’ from the coal power
plants which is considered as a ‘hazardous waste’ and
poses serious disposal problem due to heavy metal con-
tents. Earthworms ingest the heavy metals from the fly-
ash while converting them into vermi-compost. It can even
degrade ‘human excreta’ into odourless porous product
with good texture and safe pathogen quality [15,34].
Worms can also vermicompost ‘sewage sludge’—a
great environmental hazard containing toxic chemicals
and pathogens. In 12 weeks the black and brittle sludge
became a homogenous and porous mass of brown ver-
micast with light texture. Foul odor disappeared by week
2. Upon chemical analysis, the vermicomposted sludge
was over 80% free of heavy metals cadmium (Cd) and
lead (Pb) and almost completely free of any pathogens
4.2. Safe Management of Municipal and
Industrial Wastewater without Formation of
Sludge, their Purification, Detoxification &
Disinfection for Reuse
Vermifiltration of wastewater using waste eater earth-
worms is a newly conceived novel technology with sev-
eral advantages over the conventional systems. Earth-
worms body work as a ‘biofilter’ and they have been
found to remove the 5 days biological oxygen demand
(BOD5) by over 90%, chemical oxygen demand (COD)
by 80-90%, total dissolved solids (TDS) by 90-92% and
the total suspended solids (TSS) by 90-95% from waste-
water by the general mechanism of ‘ingestion’ and bio-
degradation of organic wastes and also by their ‘absorp-
tion’ through body walls. Worms also remove chemicals
including heavy metals and pathogens from treated
wastewater. They have the capacity to bio-accumulate
high concentrations of toxic chemicals in their tissues
and kill any pathogen by discharge of anti-pathogenic
‘coelomic fluid’ and the resulting treated wastewater
becomes almost free of chemicals and pathogens to be
reused for non-potable purposes [13].
4.3. Cleaning Up of Chemically Contaminated
Lands & Soils and Making them Productive:
Converting the ‘Wastelands into
Large tract of arable land is being chemically contami-
nated due to mining activities, heavy use of agro-chemi-
cals in farmlands, landfill disposal of toxic wastes and
other developmental activities like oil and gas drilling.
No farmland of world especially in the developing na-
tions are free of toxic pesticides, mainly aldrin, chlordane,
dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex and toxaphene. Ac-
cording to National Environment Protection Council there
are over 80,000 contaminated sites in Australia. There
are 40,000 contaminated sites in US; 55,000 in just six
European countries and 7,800 in New Zealand. There are
about 3 million contaminated sites in the Asia-Pacific.
These also include the abandoned mine sites along with
the closed landfills. The contaminated sites mostly con-
tain heavy metals cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), mercury
(Hg), zinc (Zn) etc. and chlorinated compounds like the
PCBs and DDT. Cleaning them up mechanically by ex-
cavating the huge mass of contaminated soils and dis-
posing them in secured landfills will require billions of
dollars. There is also great risk of their leaching under-
ground (aggravated by heavy rains) and contaminating
the groundwater. Contaminated soils and waters pose
major environmental, agricultural and human health
problems worldwide.
Earthworms have been found to bio-accumulate heavy
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for Man & Environment
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
metals, pesticides and lipophilic organic micropollutants
like the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from
the soil. E. fetida was used as the test organisms for dif-
ferent soil contaminants and several reports indicated that
E. fetida tolerated 1.5% crude oil (containing several
toxic organic pollutants) and survived in this environ-
ment. [8,11,35,36].
Significantly, vermiremediation leads to total improve-
ment in the quality of soil and land where the worms
inhabit and make them highly productive. Earthworms
significantly contribute as soil conditioner to improve the
physical, chemical as well as the biological properties of
the soil and its nutritive value. They swallow large amount
of soil everyday, grind them in their gizzard and digest
them in their intestine with aid of enzymes. Only 5-10
percent of the digested and ingested material is absorbed
into the body and the rest is excreted out in soil in the
form of fine mucus coated granular aggregates called
‘vermicastings’ which are rich in NKP (nitrates, phos-
phates and potash), micronutrients and beneficial soil
microbes including the ‘nitrogen fixers’ and ‘mycorrhizal
Of considerable economic and environmental signifi-
cance is that the worm feed used in vermiremediation
process is necessarily an ‘organic waste’ product. This
means that it would also lead to reuse and recycling of
vast amount of organic wastes which otherwise end up in
landfills for disposal at high cost. And what is of still
greater economic and environmental significance is that
the polluted land is not only ‘cleaned-up’ but also ‘im-
proved in quality’. The soil becomes lighter and porous
rich in biological activities and the productivity is in-
creased to several times. During the vermi-remediation
process of soil, the population of earthworms increases
significantly benefiting the soil in several ways. A ‘was-
teland’ is transformed into ‘wonderland’. Earthworms are
in fact regarded as ‘biological indicator’ of good fertile
soil and land.
4.3.1. Mechanism of Worm Action in Remediation of
Contaminated Soils
Earthworms uptake chemicals from the soil through pas-
sive ‘absorption’ of the dissolved fraction through the
moist ‘body wall’ in the interstitial water and also by
mouth and ‘intestinal uptake’ while the soil passes through
the gut. Earthworms apparently possess a number of me-
chanisms for uptake, immobilization and excretion of
heavy metals and other chemicals. They either ‘bio-trans-
form’ or ‘biodegrade’ the chemical contaminants render-
ing them harmless in their bodies. Some metals are bound
by a protein called ‘metallothioneins’ found in earth-
worms which has very high capacity to bind metals. The
chloragogen cells in earthworms appear to mainly accu-
mulate heavy metals absorbed by the gut and their im-
mobilization in the small spheroidal chloragosomes and
debris vesicles that the cells contain. Earthworms have
also been found to biodegrade ‘toxic organic contami-
nants’ like phthalate, phenanthrene and fluoranthene in
soil [7,37].
4.3.2. Role of Earthworms in Removing Chemical
Contaminants from Soils
1) Removal of Heavy Metals
Earthworms can bio-accumulate high concentrations
of heavy metals. They can particularly ingest and accu-
mulate extremely high amounts of zinc (Zn), lead (Pb)
and cadmium (Cd). Cadmium levels up to 100 mg per kg
dry weight have been found in tissues. Earthworms spe-
cies Lumbricus terrestris can bio-accumulate in their
tissues 90-180 mg lead (Pb)/gm of dry weight, while L.
rubellus and D. rubida it was 2600 mg /gm and 7600 mg
/gm of dry weight respectively. Zinc (Zn), manganese
(Mn), and iron (Fe) were shown to be excreted through
the calciferous glands of earthworms [7,38].
2) Removal of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
PAHs are priority pollutants and cause great concern
with respect to human health and environment. They are
inherently ‘recalcitrant hydrocarbons’, and the higher
molecular weight PAHs are very difficult to remediate.
Earthworm species L. rubellus degraded spiked PAHs
phananthrene & fluoranthene (100 μg/kg of soil). Losses
of both PAHs occurred at a faster rate in soils with
earthworms, than the soil without worms. After 56 days
86% of the phenanthrene was removed. E. fetida was
also found to degrade the PAHs. The concentration of
anthracene decreased by 2-fold after addition of earth-
worms, benzo(a)pyrene decreased by 1.4-fold and phe-
nanthrene was completely removed (100%) by earth-
worms [8,37].
We studied the remedial action of earthworms on
PAHs contaminated soils obtained from a former gas
works site in Brisbane, Australia where gas was being
produced from coal. The initial concentration of total
PAHs compounds in the soil at site was greater than
11,820 mg/kg of soil. The legislative requirements for
PAHs concentration in soil in Australia is only 100
mg/kg for industrial sites and 20 mg/kg for residential
sites. Worms removed nearly 80% of the PAHs as com-
pared to just 47% where worms were not applied and
only microbial degradation occurred. This was just in 12
weeks study period. It could have removed by 100% in
another few weeks. More significant was that the worm
added soil became odor-free of chemicals in few days
and were more soft and porous in texture [39].
3) Removal of Petroleum and Crude Oil Hydro-
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for Man & Environment
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
Studies with earthworm species Eisenia fetida on oil
contaminated soil revealed that worms significantly de-
creased oil contents in comparison to the control. It also
successfully treated high molecular weight hydrocarbons
‘asphaltens’ from the Prestige Oil Spill. Earthworms
mineralized the asphaltens thus eliminating it from the
system. It also decontaminated complex hydrocarbons
polluted soil [40-42].
4) Removal of Agrochemicals
There is no farmland in world which was not con-
taminated with agrochemicals in the wake of ‘green
revolution’ of 1960s which unleashed heavy use of ag-
rochemicals to boost farm production. Several studies
have found definite relationship between ‘organochlorine
pesticide’ residues in the soil and their amount in earth-
worms, with an average concentration factor (in earth-
worm tissues) of about 9 for all compounds and doses
tested. Studies indicated that the earthworms bio-accu-
mulate or biodegrade ‘organochlorine pesticide’ and ‘po-
lycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons’ (PAHs) residues in the
medium in which it lives [7,43,44].
5) Removal of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
PCBs are a group of oily, colorless, organic fluids be-
longing to the same chemical family as the pesticide DDT.
They constitute a family of chemicals with over 200 types,
and are used in transformers and power capacitors, elec-
trical insulators, as hydraulic fluids and diffusion pump
oil, in heat transfer applications, as plasticizers for many
products. PCBs are categorized as ‘unusually toxic’ and
‘persistent organic pollutant’ (POPs). They have serious
adverse effects on the human health and the environment.
PCB contaminated soil treated with earthworms resulted
in significantly greater PCB losses (average 52%) when
compared to the soil without earthworm [45].
4.3.3. Use of Earthworms in Soil Decontamination:
Acquiring Global Agenda
Traditionally, remediation of chemically contaminated
soils involves ‘off-site’ management by excavating and
subsequent disposal by burial in secured landfills. This
method of remediation is very costly affair and merely
shifts the contamination problem elsewhere. Additionally,
this involves great risk of environmental hazard while the
contaminated soils are being transported and ‘migration
of contaminants’ from landfills into adjacent lands and
water bodies by leaching. Soil washing for removing
inorganic contaminants from soil is another alternative to
landfill burial, but this technique produce a ‘residue’ with
very high metal contents which requires further treatment
or burial.
The greatest advantage of vermiremediation technol-
ogy is that it is ‘on-site’ treatment and there is no addi-
tional problems of ‘earth-cutting’, ‘excavation’ and ‘tran-
sportation’ of contaminated soils to the landfills or to the
treatment sites incurring additional economic and envi-
ronmental cost. Vermiremediation would cost about $
500-1000 per hectare of land as compared to $ 10,000-
15,000 per hectare by mechanical excavation of con-
taminated soil & its landfill disposal.
Vermiremediation by commercial vermiculture in U.K.
‘Land Reclamation and Improvements Programs’ has
become an established technology for long-term soil de-
contamination, improvement & maintenance, without
earth-cutting, soil excavation and use of chemicals’. U.S.,
Australia and other developed nations are also following.
4.4. Restoration of Soil Fertility to Produce Safe,
Chemical-Free Food for Society without
Recourse to Environmentally Destructive
Earthworms lead to total improvement in the physical
(soil porosity & softness), chemical (good pH and essen-
tial plant nutrients) and biological (beneficial soil mi-
crobes & organisms) quality of the soil and land where
they inhabit. They ‘regenerate’ even the compacted soil
due to burrowing actions and make it productive. Such
soils allow good aeration and water percolation [46]. They
swallow large amount of soil with organics (microbes,
plant & animal debris) and excrete them out as ‘vermi-
casts’ which are rich in NKP (nitrates, phosphates and
potash), micronutrients and beneficial soil microbes. Even
after single application of vermicompost the net overall
efficiency of nitrogen (N) is considerably greater than that
of chemical fertilizers.
4.4.1. Potential of Vermicompost to Replace the
Environmentally Destructive Agro-Chemicals
and Produce Chemical-Free Organic Foods
There have been several reports that earthworms and its
vermicompost can induce excellent plant growth and
promote good crop production without chemical fertiliz-
ers. Glasshouse studies made at CSIRO Australia found
that the earthworms (Aporrectodea trapezoids) increased
growth of wheat crops (Triticum aestivum) by 39%, grain
yield by 35%, lifted protein value of the grain by 12% &
also resisted crop diseases as compared to the control
[47]. Studies on the agronomic impact of vermicompost
on cherries found that it increased yield of ‘cherries’ for
three (3) years after ‘single application’ inferring that the
use of vermicompost in soil builds up fertility and restore
its vitality for long time contrary to chemical fertilizers
4.4.2. Earthworms Protects Plants against Pests and
Diseases & Significantly Reduce Use of
Environmentally Destructive Chemical
Earthworms are both ‘plant growth promoter and protec-
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for Man & Environment
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
tor’. There has been considerable evidence in recent
years regarding the ability of earthworms and its vermi-
compost to protect plants against various pests and dis-
eases either by suppressing or repelling them or by in-
ducing biological resistance in plants to fight them or by
killing them through in-built pesticidal action [49-51].
Spray of chemical pesticides is significantly reduced by
over 75% where earthworms and vermicompost are used
in agriculture [29].
5. Role of Earthworms in Protection of
Human Health
Traditional medicinemen in China and Philippines used
earthworms in forkloric healings of many sickness such
as to cure fever, inflammation of different parts of the
body, stomach-aches and toothaches, rheumatism and
arthritis, to cure mumps and measles and even to make
child delivery easier by faster contraction of the uterus
and reducing labour pains. China has been using earth-
worms in traditional healing for 2,300 years [52]. The
Chinese Materia Medica by Li Shizhen (1518-1593) listed
40 usage of earthworms in traditional medicine such as
‘hemiplegia’ (a condition where half of the body is para-
lysed) ‘dilating blood vessels’, ‘lowering blood pressure’,
‘smoothing asthma’, ‘alleviating pains’, ‘relieving impo-
tence’, ‘promoting lactation’, ‘protecting the skin’, as
anti-bacterial’ & ‘anti-convulsions’ and as a ‘tonic’ [53].
5.1. Use of Earthworms in Development of
Modern Medicine
In the last 10 years, a number of earthworm’s ‘clot-disso-
lving’, ’lytic’ and ‘immune boosting’ compounds have
been isolated and tested clinically. Current researches
made in Canada, China, Japan and other countries on the
identification, isolation and synthesis of some ‘bioactive
compounds’ from earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus &
Eisenia fetida) with potential medicinal values have
brought revolution in the vermiculture studies. Some of
these compounds have been found to be enzymes exhib-
iting ‘anti-blood clotting’ effects [54].
5.2. Cure for Heart Diseases and Cancer
Lumbrokinase (LK) is a group of 6 ‘proteolytic enzymes’
and recent researches suggest that it may be effective in
treatment and prevention of ‘ischemic heart disease’ as
well as ‘myocardial infarction’, ‘thrombosis’ of central
vein of retina, ‘embolism’ of peripheral veins, and ‘pul-
monary embolism’. It is now being used in the treatment
of ‘cerebral infarction’. Japanese scientists also con-
firmed the curative effects of ‘lumbrokinase’ experimen-
tally in the 1980s. [55]. Researches done at Ohio State
University, USA, show that cancer cannot be induced in
earthworms inferring that there are some bioactive com-
pounds and ‘genetic defense’ mechanism that protects
them. The group of enzymes lumbrokinase (LK) also
promises to wage a ‘war on cancer’ [56].
5.3. Earthworms for Production of Antibiotics
The coelomic fluid of earthworms have been reported to
have anti-pathogenic activities and are good biological
compound for the production of ‘antibiotics’ [13].
5.4. Combating Stress & Increasing Human
Scientists in the University of Colorado, U.S. believe that
researches into earthworms may provide an insight into
increasing the longevity of humans up to around 120
years. By exposing the earthworms to stress they identi-
fied the genes (biomarker of ageing) which may allow to
modify humans ‘stress response system’ in order to ex-
tend their life.
6. Role of Earthworms in Production of
Materials for Consumer Industries
6.1. Raw Materials for Rubber, Lubricant,
Detergent, Soaps and Cosmetics
Some biological compounds from earthworms are also
finding industrial applications. Being ‘biodegradable’ they
are environmentally friendly and sustainable. ’Stearic
acid found in earthworms is a long chain saturated fatty
acid and are widely used as ‘lubricant’ and as an ‘addi-
tive’ in industrial preparations. It is used in the manufac-
ture of metallic stearates, pharmaceuticals soaps, cos-
metics and food packaging. It is also used as a ‘softner’,
‘accelerator activator’ and ‘dispersing agents’ in rubbers.
Industrial applications of lauric acid and its derivatives
are as ‘alkyd resins’, ‘wetting agents’, a ‘rubber accel-
erator’ and ‘softner’ and in the manufacture of ‘deter-
gents’ and ‘insecticides’. Worms are also finding new
uses as a source of ‘collagen’ for pharmaceutical indus-
tries [57,58].
6.2. Nutritive Feed Materials for Poultry, Dairy
and Fishery Industries
Earthworms are rich in high quality protein (65%) and is
‘complete protein’ with all essential amino acids. There
is 70-80% high quality ‘lysine’ and ‘methionine’. Glu-
matic acid, leucine, lysine & arginine are higher than in
fish meals. Tryptophan is 4 times higher than in blood
powder and 7 times higher than in cow liver. Worms are
also rich in Vitamins A & B. There is 0.25 mg of Vita-
min B1 and 2.3 mg of Vitamin B2 in each 100 gm of
earthworms. Vitamin D accounts for 0.04-0.073% of
earthworms wet weight. Thus worms are wonderful pro-
Earthworms: Charles Darwin’s ‘Unheralded Soldiers of Mankind’: Protective & Productive for Man & Environment
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
biotic feed for fish, cattle and poultry industry. They are
being used as ‘additives’ to produce ‘pellet feeds’ in the
USA, Canada and Japan [59,60].
As earthworm protein is complete with 8-9 essential
amino acids especially with the tasty ‘glutamic acid’ it
can be used for human beings as well. Worm protein is
higher than in any meat products with about 2% lower
fats than in meats and ideal for human consumption.
7. Conclusions & Remarks
Value of earthworms in sustainable development (con-
verting waste into resource, improving soil fertility &
boosting crop productivity by vermicompost and produc-
tion of some valuable life saving medicines for mankind)
and environmental protection (detoxification and disin-
fection of wastewater, decontamination of soils and land
remediation and replacing the environmentally destruc-
tive agro-chemicals in food production) has grown con-
siderably in recent years all over the world. It is like get-
ting ‘gold from garbage’ (highly nutritive biofertilizer)
by vermi-composting technology; ‘silver from sewage’
(disinfected & detoxified water for reuse in agriculture &
industries) by vermi-filtration technology; ‘converting a
wasteland (chemically contaminated lands) into wonder-
land’ (fertile land) by vermi-remediation technology;
harvesting ‘green gold’ (food crops) by using ‘black
gold’ (vermicompost) by agro-production technology;
creating a ‘worm factory’ to produce medicines & mate-
rials for societal use. In India, the earthworms have en-
hanced the lives of poor and the unemployed. Educated
unemployed have now taken to vermicomposting busi-
ness on commercial scale. The three versatile species E.
fetida, E. euginae and P. excavatus performing wide so-
cial, economic & environmental functions occur almost
And if vermicompost can ‘replace’ the ‘chemical fer-
tilizers’ for production of ‘safe organic foods’ which has
now been proved worldwide, it will be a giant step to-
wards achieving global ‘social, economic & environ-
mental sustainability’. Production of chemical fertilizers
is ‘environmentally damaging’ (generating hazardous
wastes & pollutants and greenhouse gases) in its entire
life-cycle, since harnessing of raw materials from the
earth crust, to their processing in factories and applica-
tion in farms (polluting soil & killing beneficial organ-
isms) with severe economic & environmental implica-
tions. Production and use of 1 kg of chemical nitrogen
fertilizer emits 2,500 gm of CO2, 10 gm N2O & 1 gm
CH4. Molecule to molecule, N2O and CH4 are 310 & 22
times more powerful GHG than CO2.
Earthworms are truly justifying the beliefs and fulfill-
ing the dreams of Sir Charles Darwin who called earth-
worms as ‘unheralded soldiers of mankind’ and ‘friends
of farmers’. Darwin wrote that ‘no other creature on
earth has done so much for mankind’ as the earthworms.
It is also justifying the beliefs of Dr. Anatoly Igonin
one of the great contemporary vermiculture scientist
from Russia who said ‘Earthworms create soil & im-
prove soils fertility and provides critical biospheres
functions: disinfecting, neutralizing, protective and pro-
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