Understanding the transfer of mercury (Hg) from soil to crops is crucial due to Hg toxicity and Hg occurrence in terrestrial systems. Previous research has shown that available Hg in soils contributes to plant Hg levels. Plant Hg concentrations are related to soil conditions and plant characteristics. Mechanistic models describing such soil–plant interactions are however difficult to quantify. Here we performed a field study in agricultural, mining and industrial areas in Portugal to evaluate potential food chain risks. The uptake of Hg by Italian ryegrass, ryegrass, orchard grass, collard greens and rye was measured to calculate daily intakes (DI) of Hg for cows and sheep grazing. A total of 136 soil samples and 129 plant samples were analysed. Results show that total Hg concentrations ranged from 0.01 to 98 mg kg-1 in soils; 0.01–5.4 mg kg-1 in shoots and 0.01–42 mg kg-1 in roots. Calculated DI ranged from 0.18 to 132 mg d-1 for cows, and from 0.028 to 23 mg d-1 for sheep. In 27 grassland sites, daily intakes exceeded the acceptable daily intake of both cows and sheep in view of food safety considering Hg in animal kidneys evidencing potential risks to human health. The transfer of Hg from soil to crops was described using empirical Freundlich-type functions. For ryegrass, orchard grass and collard greens, the soil-to-root or soil-to-shoot transfer of Hg appeared to be controlled by the total soil Hg concentration and levels of Alox and Feox. Empirical functions allowed us to obtain realistic estimates of Hg levels in crops and can be used as an alternative to mechanistic models when evaluating food chain risks of Hg contamination in agricultural soils.
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