Tracing heavy metal pollution from source to sink using isotopic analyses

Theme: Environmental Hazards & Pollution

Primary Supervisor:

Susan Little

Earth Sciences, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Daniel Schillereff

Department of Geography, KCL

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Additional Supervisor(s):
Mark Rehkamper (Imperial College London)
John McArthur (UCL)
David Wilson (UCL)

Project Description:

Anthropogenic emissions of heavy metals such as Zn, Cd, and Pb introduce persistent pollutants into the environment. In this project, the student will carry out isotopic analyses for the elements Zn, Cd and Pb on various emission sources and polluted waterways collected in terrestrial settings and marine regions proximal to the UK. The isotopic fingerprint of different emission sources (e.g., emissions from traffic, industrial sources, shipping, waste incineration, mine waste heaps, power plants, etc.) will enable us to monitor the relative intensity and spread of trace metal emissions from different sources in regions both proximal to and far from the original emissions.

Depending on interest, this project may target a range of emission types and archives. For example, in collaboration with Dr S. Ussher (Uni Plymouth), historic and future aerosol samples are available from the Penlee Point Atmospheric Observatory (PPAO) in Cornwall. The PPAO receives a mix of ‘clean’ air from the Atlantic and ‘polluted’ air from nearby urban areas and from shipping. In 2020, a new International Maritime Organization regulation required a reduction in ship sulfur emissions to 0.5% of fuel mass. Evaluating the success of this approach to reducing ship emissions will be possible via a multidisciplinary approach combining satellite and in situ observations and measurements. Or, the student could design a sampling campaign in the Thames to investigate heavy metal pollution in the Thames Estuary, e.g., from sewage, and to evaluate improvements following this Thames Tideway Tunnel (scheduled for completion in 2025).

Sample processing and analyses will be carried out in the clean room and mass spectrometry facilities of the ILLOGIC Laboratories at the Department of Earth Science, University College London.

Policy Impact of Research:

Anthropogenic emissions of heavy metals such as Zn, Cd, and Pb can have a severe impact on ecosystem and human health, particularly if they enter and are concentrated via the food chain. As we transition towards a zero-pollution society, it is vital that we develop effective tools to monitor the emission and environmental impacts of heavy metals. The results of this project will be used to assess environmental impacts of pollution and inform future measures that are required for mitigation.


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