Coast News

Anthropogenic Lead Still Present in European Shelf Seas

Lead is one of few elements for which the impact of human activity on the marine environment is clearly evident. It has no biological function and is toxic to humans and marine organisms. The anthropogenic perturbation dates back to the middle of the 19th century, with coal and leaded gasoline combustion serving as major lead sources to the atmosphere.

Anthropogenic lead is transported in the atmosphere over long distances and deposited in remote areas resulting in enhanced lead concentrations in surface oceans (>190 pmol kg-1) during the peak of lead emissions in 1970-80. These are about 100 times higher than natural background levels.

Since then stricter environmental regulations have resulted in reduced lead emissions to our environment. Leaded gasoline has now virtually been phased out with notable decreases in lead concentrations in oceanic surface waters. A study by an international team of scientists led by GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel presents new observational data that indicates a reduction in lead concentrations in surface waters of European shelf seas. Nevertheless, the legacy of lead, in particular from the Mediterranean, is still present and new sources emerge in the marine environment. The team has published its results in the international scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The last assessment of concentrations in European shelf seas was undertaken when leaded gasoline was still widely used. In the new study the marine biogeochemists Dagmara Rusiecka, Dr. Martha Gledhill and Professor Eric Achterberg from GEOMAR show that a 4-fold reduction in concentrations is evident in surface waters of the Celtic Sea, compared to measurements undertaken two to three decades ago.

EMBED 1 180329103743 1 540x360Dissolved lead concentrations (pmoles per liter) in the slope region of the Celtic Sea. Enhanced concentrations visible in surface waters from atmospheric inputs) and at ca. 1000 m (from watermasses originating in the Mediterranean). Credit: GEOMAR

"This is the first study showing a pronounced reduction in lead concentrations in European surface waters since the phasing out of leaded gasoline,and underpins that the successful phasing out of leaded gasoline led to a substantial reduction in atmospheric lead pollution and deposition in marine waters," says Dagmara Rusiecka, PhD student and lead author of this study.

Nevertheless, in the study area the concentrations are still 10 to 60-fold higher than natural background levels. The lead deposited in the ocean is ultimately transferred to the sediments. "Since the atmospheric inputs are reduced, we can now see that the legacy lead is being released by the sediments, forming a new source to the environment," Prof. Eric Achterberg from GEOMAR explains. Interestingly, waters from the Mediterranean which reach European shores at a depth of about 1000 m, carry a strong anthropogenic lead signal. The Mediterranean has received a great deal of lead from surrounding countries, with for example leaded gasoline in Italy, Spain and Greece only being phased out in 2003.

The study is a collaboration by researchers from the GEOMAR as well as colleagues from the University of Southampton at the National Oceanography Centre (UK), the Universities of Edinburgh, Plymouth (UK), Bretagne Occidentale (France), and also Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (Netherlands) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (USA). The results are based on expeditions conducted as part of the UK Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry Programme and the International GEOTRACES Programme on the UK research vessel Discovery in the European Shelf Seas between Ireland and France (Celtic Sea) in the period 2014-2015. At numerous sites in the Celtic Sea, Dagmara Rusiecka took water samples for measurements of lead, which were then analyzed in specialized laboratories at GEOMAR.

The sampling and analysis of lead in seawater is challenging because of the relatively low concentrations. It has only been possible since the 1980s. The sampling has to be conducted using specialized metal-free equipment (Kevlar cables and Teflon coated bottles), in order to exclude contamination from sampling equipment. "Sampling is a particular challenge because lead is found almost everywhere on ships -- even on new plastic surfaces," explains Dr. Martha Gledhill, co-author of the study. "We performed the analysis in specialized clean-rooms, similar to the ones that computer chips are manufactured in," she continued.

Professor Eric Achterberg summarizes: "We now see reductions in lead in surface waters of the European shelf seas due the reduction of lead emissions. Unexpectedly, the sediments that accumulated lead over the last 150 years, now have become a source to overlying waters. This was not expected, as lead is assumed to bind very strong with particles in the seas and thus become permanently trapped in the sediment. Therefore, we assume that concentrations in coastal waters will take much longer to return to the natural background levels than previously anticipated, with potentially negative consequences for marine organisms and humans following bioaccumulation in the foodchain."

The data from this study are an important contribution to the GEOTRACES Programme -- a large international effort to map metal concentrations in the global ocean. "The data will allow us to make larger scale predictions about contaminant transport in shelf seas. Ultimately, combining such information with worldwide contaminant metal measurements and improvements in ocean models will enable us to make robust predictions about pollutant behavior and effects on ecosystems at a global scale," Professor Achterberg concluded.

By Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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