Anthropogenic forcings have dominated metal cycling in many environments. During the period of the industrial revolution, mining and smelting of ores and combustion of fossil fuels released non-negligible amounts of potentially toxic metals such as Pb, Cd, Mn, and Zn into the environment. The extent and fate of these metal depositions in soils during that period however, have not been adequately evaluated.
Here, we combine Pb isotopes with Cd isotopes to trace the sources of metal pollutants in a small temperate watershed (Shale Hills) in Pennsylvania. Previous work has shown that Mn additions to soils in central PA was caused by early iron production, as well as coal burning and steel making upwind. Comparison of the Pb and Cd concentrations in the bedrock and soils from this watershed show that Pb and Cd in soils at Shale Hills are best characterized by addition profiles, consistent with atmospheric additions. Three soil profiles at Shale Hills on the same hillslope have very similar anthropogenic Pb inventories. Pb isotope results further reveal that the extensive use of local coals during iron production in early 19th century in Pennsylvania is most likely the anthropogenic Pb source for the surface soils at Shale Hills. Pb concentrations and isotope ratios were used to calculate mass balance and diffusive transport models in soil profiles. The model results further reveal that during the 1850s to 1920s, coal burning in local iron blasting furnaces significantly increased the Pb deposition rates to 8-14 μg cm-2 yr-1, even more than modern Pb deposition rates derived from the use of leaded gasoline in the 1940s to 1980s.
Furthermore, Cd has a low boiling point (~760 °C) and easily evaporates and condenses. The evaporation and condensation processes could generate systematic mass-dependent isotope fractionation between Cd in coal burning products and the naturally occurring Cd in the sulfide minerals of coals. This fractionation indicates that Cd isotopes can be used as a novel tracer of materials that have been affected by industrial high temperature processes, distinguishing them from natural Cd sources. Our ongoing Cd isotope measurements in the same soil profiles thus hold significant promise for tracing anthropogenic sources of this highly toxic metal in the environment. This will be the first time that Cd isotopes are characterized for polluted soils related to coal-burning activities. Such information will provide the first Cd isotope dataset to assess the environmental impacts due to the use of coals on a global scale. These new Pb and Cd isotope results, along with previous observations of Mn enrichment at Shale Hills, suggest that historical point sources from the industrial revolution could contribute significant amounts of metal contamination to top-soils. Our study highlights the importance of using multiple isotope systems to investigate Critical Zone processes in identical lithology and environmental settings.
Ma, L., Herndon, E., Jin, L., Sanchez, D., Brantley, S.L. (2013): Quantifying the signature of the industrial revolution from Pb and Cd isotopes in the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory . Abstract H51B-1186 presented at 2013 Fall Meeting, AGU, San Francisco, CA, 9-13 Dec..
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.