The objective of this study was to characterize the link between bioaccessibility and fractionation of mercury (Hg) in soils and to provide insight into human exposure to Hg due to inhalation of airborne soil particles and hand-to-mouth ingestion of Hg-bearing soil. Mercury in soils from mining, urban and industrial areas was fractionated in organometallic forms; mobile; semi-mobile; and non-mobile forms as well as HCl-extractable Hg. The in vitro bioaccessibility of Hg was obtained by extracting soils with (1) a simulated human gastric fluid (pH 1.5), and (2) a simulated human lung fluid (pH 7.4). Total soil Hg concentrations ranged from 0.72 to 1.8 mg kg- 1 (urban areas), 0.28 to 94 mg kg- 1 (industrial area) and 0.92 to 37 mg kg- 1 (mining areas). Both organometallic Hg as well as 0.1 M HCl extractable Hg were lower (<0.5% of total Hg) than Hg extracted by gastric fluid (up to 1.8% of total Hg) and lung fluid (up to 12% of total Hg). In addition, Hg extracted by lung fluid was significantly higher in urban and industrial soils (average 5.0–6.6% of total Hg) compared to mining soils. Such differences were related to levels of mobile Hg species in urban and industrial soils compared to mining soils. These results strengthen the need to measure site-specific Hg fractionation when determining Hg bioaccessibility. Results also show that ingestion and/or inhalation of Hg from soil particles can contribute up to 8% of adult total Hg intake when compared to total Hg intake via consumption of contaminated fish and animal products from contaminated areas.
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