Archive for the ‘Hot Articles’ Category

Are we eating flame retardants?

Most of the materials we use nowadays are impregnated with several chemicals to make them fireproof and meet fire safety regulations. These are classically halogenated compounds such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Recently, the food safety authorities in the EU banned PBDEs because several studies linked them to hepatic damage and perturbations in metabolism.

Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts

Hence, chemists developed a new kind of fire retardants known as hexabromocyclododecanes (HBCDs). Manufacturers of goods such as plastics, textiles and electronic equipment, are increasingly using these compounds. However, HBCDs may not be an ideal solution: recent studies found them in dust, air, sediments, and sewage in areas surrounding electronic waste (or e-waste) processing plants. And what is worse, the presence of HBCDs has also been reported in eggs, while researchers have confirmed human exposure from eating food sourced near the e-waste treatment plants. These are concerning issues, since these chemical are potentially toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative.

In this article published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, Dr. Fang Tao and co-workers investigated the presence of HBCDs and other fire retardants in fish, pigs and free-range chickens reared in areas that could have been polluted by e-waste plants in Bui Dau, Vietnam. In addition to this, the team also took samples from supposedly non-contaminated zones both in Vietnam and Japan and analysed them.

The authors reported that HBCDs, as well as other emerging fire retardants, are found in chicken, fish and pork samples collected near the e-waste processing plant in Bui Dau. According to these data, locals may be ingesting dangerous amounts of toxic, accumulative chemicals. Although the dangers of some of these compounds are not completely defined yet, the researchers suggest to keep studying this phenomenon: the quantity of these contaminants in the environment may rise soon.

Interested in this research? Click on the link below to read the full article for free*

Emerging halogenated flame retardants and hexabromocyclododecanes in food samples from an e-waste processing area in Vietnam
Fang Tao, Hidenori Matsukami, Go Suzuki, Nguyen Minh Tue, Pham Hung Viet, Hidetaka Takigami and Stuart Harrad.
Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, 2016, Advance Article
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00593K

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About the webwriter

Fernando Gomollón-Bel is a PhD Student at the ISQCH (CSIC-University of Zaragoza). His research focuses on asymmetric organic synthesis using sugars as chiral-pool starting materials towards the production of fungical transglycosidase inhibitors.

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* Access is free until 11/04/2016 through a registered RSC account.

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The dangers of mercury in solid waste landfills

The (Mad) Hatter from Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (Illustration by John Tenniel - Public Domain)

The Hatter in Alice in Wonderland may not have been mad after all. He might have suffered from mercury poisoning! Thankfully, nowadays we know mercury is a dangerous element in almost all its forms. Organomercury compounds such as monomethylmercury (MMHg) and dimethylmercury (DMHg) are especially hazardous: not only because of their extreme toxicity but also because they can be bio-magnified in the food web. Moreover, mercury can travel the biosphere through air, water and soil, increasing the danger.

Even if we have stopped using mercury thermometers, a big number of household and industrial products still use this liquid metal. A lot of these products end up in landfills where they are treated as conventional waste, and may liberate dangerous amounts of this toxic metal to the atmosphere and soil.

In this critical review published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, scientists analyze solid waste management in landfills and the chemistry of mercury, as well as the release of this metal into the environment and the possible bio and geological transformations it may suffer. As a conclusion, researchers review a series of studies that should be considered in depth in order to understand the problem of mercury release and to, eventually, find a solution.

As described in this work, landfills –mainly when they undergo the so-called anaerobic phase– present the ideal conditions (pH, redox, organic matter) for mercury to be speciated and transformed, then dissolved, mobilized and disseminated within the biosphere. It is mostly released as Hg(0) in gas form, but other species like MMHg and DMHg may also be produced and incorporated to soil and water reservoirs.

Whether you are a specialist in mercury or not, this review will surely captivate you. Landfills may seem boring, but the chemistry underneath is fascinating, like the liquid metal that fascinated alchemists for centuries. Remember, mercury was the prima materia from which all metals were formed!


Interested in this research? Click on the link below to read the full article for free*
Biogeochemical transformations of mercury in solid waste landfills and pathways for release
Sung-Woo Lee, Gregory V. Lowry and Heileen Hsu-Kim.
Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts 2016, 18, 176-189
DOI: 10.139/C5EM00561B

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About the webwriter

Fernando Gomollón-Bel is a PhD Student at the ISQCH (CSIC-University of Zaragoza). His research focuses on asymmetric organic synthesis using sugars as chiral-pool starting materials towards the production of fungical transglycosidase inhibitors.

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* Access is free until 18/03/2016 through a registered RSC account.

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Sun, wind, and a crowd: Tough days in the life of a passive sampler?

Passive air samplers (PAS) have found great utility in monitoring environmental concentrations of semivolatile organic contaminants (SVOCs) all over the world. They provide a picture of longer-term average air concentrations of SVOCs while being relatively portable, low-cost and extremely low-maintenance. Knowing the deployment time, the amount of chemical accumulated in the passive sampling medium (PSM), and the sampling rate derived when a PAS is first calibrated before widespread use, a time-averaged volumetric air concentration can be calculated.

Graphical Abstract

A key assumption underlying the calculation of PAS-derived air concentrations is that the passive sampling medium takes up chemicals uniformly. But this assumption has not been thoroughly tested so far and studies to date have indicated that the sampling rates of some commonly used PSM can differ with position inside a sampler housing. For example, sampling rates decreased with increasing distance from the opening at the bottom of a cylindrical sampler housing for the commonly used styrene-divinylbenzene copolymer or “XAD” resin.

In a study recently published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, Zhang and co-workers at the University of Toronto Scarborough have put their XAD PAS to the test once more to determine if exposure to sunlight, wind, and the presence of multiple units of XAD-filled mesh cylinders in one PAS housing caused differential chemical uptake across the length of a single cylinder.

The chemicals of interest in this series of experiments, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were chosen because their environmental partitioning properties are inclusive of a range of SVOCs commonly measured in the environment. One indoor experiment included axially segmented PAS at four indoor locations, one of which also used fans to simulate the effect of wind. At one of the indoor locations, a similar experiment was conducted outdoors, where the effect of heat conduction resulting from sunshine was also tested. This involved using PAS with regular housings, housings painted black to enhance heat absorption, and housings shaded by a steel cover.

Two additional experiments varied the number of mesh cylinders inside each housing. One experiment deployed a pair of PAS containing one and four mesh cylinders at one outdoor and one indoor location. A final outdoor experiment attempted to incorporate a variety of temperatures and wind speeds by deploying PAS at nine locations on the Big Island of Hawaii. Each site had one PAS containing one XAD-filled mesh cylinder and another containing two.

Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts front cover image highlighting the article

In the first indoor experiment, the total amount of PCBs accumulated in all segments was not significantly different from the amount accumulated in a mesh cylinder that had not been segmented. In those cylinders that were axially segmented, the amount of PCBs accumulated in the bottom segments was significantly higher than in the upper two segments in office and storage areas, and assumed to have little activity and therefore air turbulence. But this difference was not significant in the mesh cylinder placed in a cargo-loading area, presumably because of the relatively higher level of activity and therefore air turbulence. Similarly, gradients within PAS deployed outdoors were also not as strong, and the samplers exposed to fans indoors showed no significant gradients – strong indications that increased air turbulence allows for more uniform uptake across the length of the sampler.

The effect of heat convection on total accumulation and axial distribution of PCBs was determined to be minor, as was the presence of multiple mesh cylinders within one housing, but only outdoors. Indoors, the amount of PCB accumulated per sampler was significantly lower in those PAS with four mesh cylinders, and the gradient was also steeper.

The final outdoor deployment across varying temperature and wind conditions in Hawaii, which measured accumulation of PCBs, pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, showed no significant difference in chemical accumulation in PAS with one versus two XAD-filled mesh cylinders. The finding that uptake of SVOCs by XAD PAS is affected very little by the presence of multiple mesh cylinders in one housing in a variety of outdoor conditions means that fewer housings can be used during a given sampling campaign that uses XAD PAS. This augments the low-maintenance nature of this monitoring method, and thus the value of this particular PAS as a tool for monitoring SVOCs in the environment.


To read the full Open Access article, click the link below:

Exploring the role of the sampler housing in limiting uptake of semivolatile organic compounds in passive air sampler
Xianming Zhang, Michelle Hoang, Ying D. Lei, and Frank Wania
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts,
2015, 17, 2006-2012
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00447K

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About the webwriter

Abha Parajulee is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She is interested in water resources and the behavior of organic contaminants in urban environments.

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Naphthalene-eating bacteria

Most petroleum hydrocarbons are dangerous for the environment and are known to be toxic. These chemicals can cause severe respiratory problems, mutations and cancer. A very particular type of hydrocarbons, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), represents a serious environmental threat. PAHs can obviously be dangerous when directly inhaled, but they are especially harmful since they can accumulate in water, sediments and soil, taking decades to decompose and thus polluting ecosystems for generations.

A few years ago, some scientists observed that certain species of bacteria had developed, by the means of natural selection, the ability to degrade molecules like hydrocarbons or polymers. Some of these species have evolved to degrade PAHs such as naphthalene, phenanthrene or pyrene, which means that they can be used to treat the waste of certain chemical plants, lowering the amount of these dangerous products released in to the environment.

Using tools like artificial selection or genetic engineering could enhance the efficacy of these bacteria. Moreover, the influence of some external factors may be optimized to improve the conversion of pollutants to non-toxic substances. In this article, recently published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, Professor Mutai Bao and his team studied the effects of supporting bacteria on biodegradable, porous, low-cost materials like semi-coke, walnut shells and activated carbon. Immobilization methods are widely used and accepted by the scientific community because they are versatile and straightforward. Moreover, these systems can be easily cleaned and reused.

Before performing the experiment, scientists had to choose the right species of bacteria. They also had to let them adapt until they were able to properly digest PAHs. To facilitate this, bacteria were fed small amounts of classic carbon sources: glucose, lactose, starch or urea. The ones that received the combination of lactose and PAHs gave the best biodegradation results and were used for the optimization.

After a series of experiments, the authors concluded that immobilized bacteria degrade up to 47% more PAHs than free microbes. Semi-coke was the best support for these microorganisms, followed by walnut shell and activated carbon. In addition to this, they found bacteria to be adaptable to a broad range of pH and salinity. These biodegradation systems could be used in real-life situations such as oil spills in the ocean, where usually other techniques are less productive.

Interested in this research? Click on the link below to read the full article for free*

Biodegradation of different petroleum hydrocarbons by free and immobilized microbial consortia
Tiantian Shen, Yongrui Pi, Mutai Bao, Nana Xu, Yiming Li and Jinren Lu
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2015, 17, 2022-2033
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00318K

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About the webwriter

Fernando Gomollón-Bel is a PhD Student at the ISQCH (CSIC-University of Zaragoza). His research focuses on asymmetric organic synthesis using sugars as chiral-pool starting materials towards the production of fungical transglycosidase inhibitors.

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* Access is free until 18/02/2016 through a registered RSC account.

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Charcoal from summer barbecuing to soil remediation?

Well, not quite. But in recent years researchers have been exploring the potential of using “biochar” to remediate soil contaminated with organic chemicals. Similar to but definitely not the charcoal commonly used during barbecue season, biochar is made by heating biomass such as fruit peels in oxygen-limited conditions. Its physical and chemical characteristics impart an exceptional ability to sorb chemicals, especially organic chemicals, and reduce their bioavailability in soil.

A new study by Xu and co-workers at Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences focuses on two widespread organic chemicals: bisphenol A (BPA) and 17α-ethylyneestradiol (EE2). BPA is used for manufacturing polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Thus, it is found in a multitude of commonly used products such as cars, food storage containers, and electronic equipment. EE2 is a synthetic estrogen most commonly used as an ingredient in birth control pills.

Both of these chemicals have been found to be endocrine disrupters, and can be transported to soils via wastewater irrigation, sludge fertilizers and landfill leachates. As both chemicals are quite hydrophobic, Xu et al. hypothesized that biochar added to soil would significantly sorb BPA and EE2, and as a result would also affect leaching and dissipation of the chemicals.

The researchers tested this hypothesis by adding biochar derived from corn stalks to soil in a series of lab experiments. First, sorption studies involved adding biochar at a level of 4 wt% to soils spiked with 0.01 or 0.1 mg/L of both BPA and EE2, and measuring the amount of the chemicals in both the soil solids and the soil water after equilibrium was established in about 7 days.

They found that the soils containing biochar increased the solid-water distribution coefficients by at least 200% for BPA and EE2 respectively, relative to the soils with no biochar. Next, leaching experiments meant to simulate repeated rainfall events compared biochar-free soils to those with 1, 2 and 4 wt% of biochar, all of which were spiked with BPA and EE2 at levels reflective of environmentally contaminated soils. Biochar-amended soils decreased the amount of leached BPA by 19 to 53% and EE2 by 42 to 77%.

Biochar created by pyrolysis. Image: Wikipedia.org

A final set of incubation experiments used soils spiked in a similar manner to those used in the leaching experiments. All soils, including a biochar-free control, were left outdoors at ambient temperatures for three months. Portions of the soils were sampled at 1, 30 and 90 days, and analyzed for their total and bioavailable BPA and EE2 content. The results showed no significant effect on the dissipation of the two chemicals in soil, but large reductions in the bioavailable fractions of BPA and EE2 in soil.

In addition to holding much promise for removing various organic residues from soil, other benefits of biochar in soil include carbon sequestration, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving crop production. The long-term stability of biochar in soil further highlights the multi-faceted potential of biochar as a soil amendment.



To read more about Xu and co-workers’ investigation into biochar’s ability to reduce the mobility of two widespread organic contaminants, download a copy of the full article for free*:

Influence of biochar on sorption, leaching and dissipation of bisphenol A and 17α-ethynylestradiol in soil
N Xu, B Zhang, G Tan, J Li and H Wang
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2015, 17, 1722-1730
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00190K

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About the webwriter

Abha Parajulee is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She is interested in water resources and the behavior of organic contaminants in urban environments.

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* Access is free until 01/12/2016 through a registered RSC account.

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Tracking down europium

We have used nuclear energy for a while now. It is a clean form of energy, except for one little thing: what happens with radioactive waste? Scientists think the best solution is burying it deep in the ground and labelling it clearly enough so that future generations (or aliens!) will not dare to look inside. However, is this really the best solution? What happens with radioactive nuclei once they are inside the nuclear graveyard?

DOI C5EM00412H

Scientists need to study the interactions of radioactive elements with the environment that surrounds them in the ground. But using radioactive elements is tricky: they can be dangerous and unstable, and most of them tend to decay in a few seconds (minutes, if you are lucky). Hence, researchers have determined to use models that mimic the behaviour of elements such as americium, curium or plutonium. Right in the row above actinides we find lanthanides, which have very similar oxidation states and comportment.

Image from Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia.org

Scientists dig into europium. Not only because of its stability, but also because of its high fluorescence. This makes europium easy to track down in the lab. Outside the lab, europium is also very useful: the European Central Bank (ECB) uses europium as a fluorescent marker to fight counterfeit banknotes. Rumour has it the ECB intended the euro pun when choosing this particular element.

A group of researchers in China have studied the interactions of europium with alumina and humic acid (HA). These two substances represented the average inorganic and organic components of soil. In previous studies, they investigated the effect of reaction time, pH or ionic strength. In this paper, recently published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, researchers examined the influence of temperature in the interactions of europium. And temperature is important when it comes to radioactive wastes: nuclear debris can keep temperatures of up to 100ºC during at least 1000 years, due to exothermic radioactive effects such as decomposition.

Luckily, the results were quite positive. Apparently, at high temperatures the formation of very stable structures is favoured, and the sorption of europium in alumina and alumina/HA systems is slightly increased with temperature. Nonetheless, trivalent cations are not the only substances present in nuclear waste. The interactions between soil-like substances (like alumina or HA) and other type of nuclei remain to be studied in depth.


Click on the link below to read the full article for free*

Sequestration and speciation of Eu(III) on gamma alumina: role of temperature and contact order
Yawen Cai, Xuemei Ren, Yue Lang, Zhiyong Liu, Pengfei Zong, Xiangke Wanga and Shitong Yang
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2015, 17, 1904-1914
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00412H

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About the webwriter

Fernando Gomollón-Bel is a PhD Student at the ISQCH (CSIC-University of Zaragoza). His research focuses on asymmetric organic synthesis using sugars as chiral-pool starting materials towards the production of fungical transglycosidase inhibitors.

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* Access is free until 20/12/2015 through a registered RSC account.

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New insights into the leaching of radioisotopes from nuclear wastes

The sites of underground repositories for radioactive waste need to be selected, designed and built adequately. This requires an in-depth understanding of the geochemical processes governing the release and transport of radionuclides from the waste to the surrounding environment. In this study published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, researchers describe a technique that will improve our knowledge of potential leaching of radionuclides in these environments.

Many countries around the world now meet a substantial fraction of their energy demand through nuclear power. A key environmental issue, therefore facing these nations, is how to ensure the safe and responsible disposal of radioactive wastes. The International Atomic Energy Agency outlines a number of different potential methods for disposing of radioactive wastes and discusses the approach of different nations.

Careful burial in well-engineered ‘repositories’ at various depths below the land surface – so-called ‘geological disposal’ – is now the preferred option for the final storage of nuclear waste for most countries with advanced nuclear programmes, including the UK, Canada, Finland, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and the USA. Indeed, a 2004 European Commission Report on radioactive wastes states that:

“Burial at several hundreds of metres depth in stable rock environments is the option for disposal of the most hazardous radioactive wastes because it will provide permanent safety – not just for ourselves, but for future times very much longer than the whole of past human history.”

However, in order to ensure that this statement is true, it is essential to assess to what extent radionuclides could be released to the environment. Therefore, it is of great importance to understand how long-lived radionuclides (such as 79Se, 129I, 14C or 36Cl) are chemically bound in the radioactive waste matrix. The challenge for researchers and practitioners is to provide reliable safety assessments for such nuclear waste repository sites that provide reliable long-term predictions on the release of radionuclides in waste repositories as the waste undergoes geochemical transformations in ground waters.

Radiocative wastes are typically a highly heterogeneous material made up of the fuel matrix with 3–6% fission products and minor actinides dispersed among different phases. Long-lived isotopes like 79Se, 135Cs, 129I and 36Cl are of interest because they are easily soluble in water and sorb only weakly on mineral surfaces, implying that, once dissolved, under repository conditions they will migrate through the sub-surface environment very rapidly. These compounds are therefore major contributors to the overall radiological dose calculated in risk assessments of nuclear waste repositories.

The properties and behaviour of radionuclides like 79Se in nuclear wastes are not well understood due to the technical difficulty of obtaining sound experimental data on such highly radioactive materials. This insufficient knowledge is usually compensated by conservatism in the choice of parameter values for safety assessment calculations. For example, it has previously been assumed that a significant fraction of 79Se is rapidly released from the spent fuel waste on contact with aqueous solutions and is highly mobile. This is due to the observation that selenium has an appreciable volatility under reactor operation conditions and the high solubility of oxidized Se species in water.

However, recent experiments have indicated that less than 1% of the Se in a geological disposal repository is released to aqueous solution after 1 year leaching, suggesting only a small fraction is actually leachable. This demonstrates the need to further investigate the geochemical nature and behaviour of long-lived radionuclides such as 79Se in radioactive wastes and the interaction of these isotopes with spent UO2 fuel.

This work is the result of a collaboration between Swiss, Swedish, French and American research institutes, investigating radionuclide release of 79Se from radioactive waste in a deep water-saturated repository. In the study, X-ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) measurements were made on samples from the Leibstadt Boiling Water Reactor in Switzerland.

Their results offer a mechanistic explanation why Se appears to be much less soluble in short-term aqueous leaching experiments, compared to other radionuclides like I and Ce. It was shown that these results were corroborated by a simple thermodynamic analysis, showing that selenide is the stable form of Se under reactor operation conditions.

This study provides a technique that helps improve our understanding of the geochemical transformation and transport of radioactive nuclides in wastes disposed in geological formations. Investigations like this are required to reduce conservatism and improve reliability in carrying out safety assessment calculations. This work is therefore integral to the future selection and design of potential nuclear waste repository sites.


To read more about this research, download a copy of the manuscript for free* by clicking the link below.

Characterization of selenium in UO2 spent nuclear fuel by micro X-ray absorption spectroscopy and its thermodynamic stability
E. Curti, A. Puranen, D. Grolimund, D. Jädernas,D. Sheptyakov and A. Mesbah
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2015,17, 1760-1768
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00275C

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About the webwriter

Ian Keyte is currently a Science Policy Intern at the Royal Society. He previously gained a PhD at the University of Birmingham investigating atmospheric pollution, and has a BSc in Environmental Chemistry from Lancaster University.

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* Access is free until 24/11/2015 through a registered RSC account.

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Teasing out the relative importance of controls on the production of a bioaccumulative neurotoxin

Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts cover highlights this research (issue 9)

Monomethylmercury (MeHg) is a chemical of great concern due to its neurotoxic nature and its efficient bioaccumulation in aquatic systems, eventually reaching humans through fish consumption.

MeHg is produced by the action of bacteria that transform the most commonly found species of mercury in aquatic environments. Remediation of mercury-contaminated sites requires insight into factors that facilitate the action of these mercury methylators. For example, anaerobic conditions and relatively large quantities of total and dissolved organic carbon both enhance production of MeHg.

The original speciation of mercury is also important, as some forms of mercure are more bioavailable to mercury methylators than others. Past work has traditionally focused on the influence of these factors individually; however, under environmental conditions these factors likely work in concert to affect mercury methylation.

Kucharzyk and co-workers at Duke University take the next step forward with their recent study published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts which aims to assess the relative influence of microbial productivity and mercury speciation on MeHg production. The researchers enriched cultures of mercury methylating bacteria found in two different marine sediments containing similar, elevated mercury concentrations. The cultures were determined to contain mostly one type of anaerobic bacteria known to methylate mercury.

For each of the two cultures, microbial growth was varied by adding different amounts of carbon substrate, and mercury speciation was varied with the addition of either dissolved or nanoparticulate mercury. The cultures were then incubated for 64 hours, during which two or three replicates were analyzed for various chemical and biological parameters at several time points across the incubation period.

In both cultures, mercury methylation increased with increasing concentrations of carbon substrate for a given type of mercury. When carbon substrate concentration was kept constant, the percentage of mercury that was methylated was 3 to 4 times lower in cultures amended with nanoparticulate mercury relative to those containing dissolved mercury instead. This could not have been due to differences in bacterial growth rates as the observed cell growth was the same across both types of added mercury, implying that the differences are probably a result of lower bioavailability of nanoparticulate mercury versus dissolved mercury.

The differences in microbial productivity between cultures spiked with the two different types of mercury became smaller with decreasing levels of carbon substrate. Interestingly, this data suggest there may be a threshold in the activity of mercury methylating bacteria, below which net MeHg production is controlled by the availability of carbon substrate, and above which the bioavailability of mercury becomes more important. However, further study including lower levels of carbon substrate is required to better confirm the existence of this threshold in microbial methylation activity.


Click on the link below to read the full article for free*:
Relative contributions of mercury bioavailability and microbial growth rate on net methylmercury production by anaerobic mixed cultures
Katarzyna H. Kucharzyk, Marc A. Deshusses, Kaitlyn A. Porter and Heileen Hsu-Kim
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2015, 17, 1568-1577
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00174A

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About the webwriter

Abha Parajulee is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She is interested in water resources and the behavior of organic contaminants in urban environments.

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* Access is free until 18/11/2015 through a registered RSC account.

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Vehicle fire: a danger for firemen?

There are 200,000 cars fires every year in the United States. The number in the UK is even more impressive: 100,000 car fires every year (which means around 300 fires a day). Car fires are usually short, but also very intense, and release dangerous products that may not only pollute the environment, but also seriously affect the firemen tackling them. Despite the high incidence of this type of fires, very few studies have addressed the hazardous exposures firemen may be suffering.

The sampling platform used for "vacuuming" the fumes

The sampling platform used for "vacuuming" the fumes

Two researchers from Cincinnati (Ohio) have published a paper in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts investigating the dangers of ultrafine and respirable particles released during vehicle fire suppression. They set three different cars on fire and asked a crew of firemen to suppress them with water. Meanwhile, a huge “vacuum cleaner”-like machine took samples that were later analysed by the two scientists.

The particle emissions were, like the fires, only present for a short period of time. However, the concentrations measured during the blaze were orders of magnitude bigger than the safe limits. They also found that cabin fire suppression is more dangerous than putting out just the engine compartment. The explanation might be simple: when the whole cabin is burning down, there is more fuel feeding the combustion, leading to more emissions and longer extinction times.

Another key aspect to consider is wind. Usually fire crews are trained to position themselves in an upwind and smoke-free spot, but you can’t control wind. When wind veered, particle emissions went off the chart, consequently increasing the risks.

Further studies will be carried out. In the meantime, the authors conclude that a self-contained breathing apparatus (a mask that works with compressed air generating a positive pressure inside it) should be worn throughout all the phases of extinguishing a vehicle fire. Otherwise, the hazardous vapours and particles released to the atmosphere may increase the risk of cancer in firemen.

Click on the link below to read the full article for free*

Ultrafine and respirable particle exposure during vehicle fire suppression
Douglas E. Evans and Kenneth W. Fent
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2015, 17, 1749-1759
DOI: 10.1039/C5EM00233H

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About the webwriter

Fernando Gomollón-Bel is a PhD Student at the ISQCH (CSIC-University of Zaragoza). His research focuses on asymmetric organic synthesis using sugars as chiral-pool starting materials towards the production of fungical transglycosidase inhibitors.

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* Access is free through a registered RSC account.

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Re-use or miss-use? The risks and rewards of reclaimed waste water for crop irrigation

The re-use of waste waters for crop irrigation is becoming an increasingly popular practice, particularly in arid, water-stressed regions of the world. A new study by researchers from the U.S. Salinity Laboratory and the Institute of Soil and Environmental Sciences at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad, Pakistan, investigates the potential agronomic and environmental impacts this can have on farmlands, shedding light on the challenges for long-term management of water usage and crop production.

Depletion of freshwater resources is one of the most important issues facing future global development. Finite water resources are becoming increasingly stressed by an ever-growing world population and associated demand for food production. Furthermore, the increased frequency of drought in many areas resulting from climate change and resource degradation due to pollution make the task of ensuring the global population have access to enough clean water increasingly difficult. The United Nations have warned that, under existing climate change scenarios, almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030.

An increasingly popular option to cope with increased water demand for agriculture is to re-use waste water or degraded water for crop irrigation. For example, dairy lagoon wastewater has been proposed as an alternate water resource in agriculture, as this can be a plentiful source of essential nutrients and organic matter. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) produced a report presenting “an economic framework for the assessment of the use of reclaimed water in agriculture”. This could also have the additional benefit of alleviating the need for the costly and difficult storage, treatment and disposal of large volumes of waste water.

Crop irrigation system (http://www.access-irrigation.co.uk)

However, degraded water will also contain contaminants, particularly salts and heavy metals such as zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), nickel (Ni), arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), and lead (Pb).  This could mean the benefits of using wastewater could be offset due to increasing soil salinity and accumulation of potentially bioaccumulative toxins, which could have a negative impact on crop yield and quality, as well as wider reaching environmental problems. There is therefore a need for a greater understanding of how using dairy lagoon wastewater could impact the quality of agricultural land and the surrounding environment.

While the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of degraded waters are generally well studied, the impact of its reuse on agricultural lands over long timescales is not well understood. In this study by Dennis Corwin and Hamaad Raza Ahmad, a field-scale impact investigation of dairy lagoon water reuse on agricultural soil characteristics was carried out. This represents the first study of this kind to be conducted at this spatial or temporal scale.

In the study, soil samples were collected at locations identified from apparent soil electrical conductivity (EC) measurements, a property of soil that reflects several soil physical and chemical properties (including soil salinity, texture, water content, bulk density, organic matter, and cation exchange capacity). Samples were taken at a number of different depth increments in an agricultural area in San Jacinto, California, first in 2007 and again in 2011, to establish the effect of using dairy lagoon water blended with recycled or well water on agricultural land over a 4 year irrigation period.

Chemical analyses of soil samples were carried out to determine key characteristics of the soil. This included the salinity, pH, SAR (sodium adsorption ratio), trace elements (As, B, Mo, Se), and heavy metals (Cd, Cu, Mn, Ni, Zn). The authors note that, from an agronomic perspective, the salinity, SAR, and B are of greatest concern, while from an environmental perspective, the salinity and Cu present the greatest potential effect upon groundwater safety.

The results suggest the reuse of dairy lagoon water presented very little detrimental environmental or agronomic impacts over the 4 years of the study duration. However, there were a number of potential long-term concerns that the study raises. For example, the pH values at all soil depths were shown to decrease. Additionally, potential long-term agronomic effect of salinity, SAR, and B levels, and the long-term environmental threat of salinity and Cu was highlighted. The accumulation of Cd, Mn, and Ni in the soil profile was also observed, raising concerns over the potential for metal contaminants such as these to leach from the soil in the future.

The authors note that, while the results demonstrated the short-term (4 year) viability of dairy lagoon water reuse as an alternative water resource for agriculture, the longer-term sustainability of dairy lagoon water reuse as a viable alternative for crop irrigation requires regular monitoring of soil properties to allow adequate site-specific management.

This study demonstrates that EC-directed soil sampling can be used to monitor spatial and temporal changes in the chemical characteristics of agricultural soils due to degraded water reuse. This could help pave the way for studies over wider spatial and longer temporal scales and can help producers optimise crop yields while at the same time mitigating detrimental environmental impacts. Based on their observations, the authors provide a number of specific recommendations for achieving this most effectively.  This method has clearly delivered an extensive spatio-temporal dataset, which highlights many of the challenges for successfully managing agricultural land irrigated by degraded wastewater.

The authors highlight the broad geographical relevance and impact of this research as it concerns the viability of degraded water reuse on irrigated, agricultural lands in arid regions throughout the world (e.g. northeast China, Middle East, North and Eastern Africa, Eastern Australia, India and Pakistan), where the reuse of degraded water is a major supplemental source of irrigation water.

To read more about this research, download a copy of the manuscript for free* by clicking the link below.

Spatio-temporal impacts of dairy lagoon water reuse on soil: heavy metals and salinity
Dennis L. Corwin and Hamaad Raza Ahmad
Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2015, Advance Article
DOI: 10.1039/c5em00196j

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About the webwriterIan Keyte

Ian Keyte is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the sources, behavior and fate of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the atmosphere.

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* Access is free until 22/10/2015 through a registered RSC account.

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