Articles | Volume 6, issue 6
31 Dec 2002
31 Dec 2002

Distribution and partitioning of heavy metals in estuarine sediment cores and implications for the use of sediment quality standards

K. L. Spencer and C. L. MacLeod

Abstract. Total metal concentrations in surface sediments and historically contaminated sediments were determined in sediment cores collected from three estuaries (Thames, Medway and Blackwater) in south-east England. The partitioning behaviour of metals in these sediments was also determined using a sequential extraction scheme. These data were then compared with sediment quality values (SQVs) to determine the potential ecotoxicological risk to sediment dwelling organisms. When total metal concentrations in surface sediments are examined, no risk to biota in any of the estuaries is indicated. However, when historically contaminated sediments at depth are also considered, risks to biota are apparent and are greatest for the Thames, followed by the Medway and then the Blackwater. This suggests that regulatory authorities should examine vertical metal profiles, particularly in estuaries that are experiencing low sediment accumulation rates where historically contaminated sediments are in the shallow sub-surface zone and where erosion or dredging activities may take place. When metal partitioning characteristics are also considered, the risk to biota is comparable for the Medway and the Blackwater with the potentially bioavailable fraction presenting no ecotoxicological risk. Conversely, over 70% of metals are labile in the Thames Estuary sediments and toxic effects are probable. This suggests that the application of SQVs using total sediment metal concentrations may over- or under-estimate the risk to biota in geochemically dissimilar estuarine sediments.

Keywords: sediment quality values, estuarine sediments, metal contamination, partitioning, sequential extraction