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Environ Pollut. 1992;76(2):89-131.

Bioavailability, accumulation and effects of heavy metals in sediments with special reference to United Kingdom estuaries: a review.

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  • 1Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Citadel Hill, Plymouth PL1 2PB, UK.


Using mainly United Kingdom estuaries as examples, various factors governing the bioavailability, bioaccumulation and biological effects of heavy metals in sediment-dominated estuaries are reviewed. Estuaries and metals primarily discussed include the Mersey (Hg, methylmercury; Pb, alkyllead), the Loughor (Cr, Sn), the Severn (Ag, Cd), the Fal (As, Cu, Sn, Zn), Poole Harbour (Cd, Hg, Se, tributyltin) and Southampton Water (tributyltin). Concentrations and bioavailabilities of metals in estuarine sediments depend on many different processes. Examples include (1) mobilisation of metals to the interstitial water and their chemical speciation, (2) transformation (e.g. methylation) of metals including As, Hg, Pb and Sn (3) the control exerted by major sediment components (e.g. oxides of Fe and organics) to which metals are preferentially bound, (4) competition between sediment metals (e.g. Cu and Ag; Zn and Cd) for uptake sites in organisms, and (5) the influence of bioturbation, salinity, redox or pH on these processes. Under field conditions, identification of dominant processes can be achieved by observing the goodness of fit between metal concentrations in ubiquitous deposit-feeding species and levels in various types of sediment extract over a wide spectrum of sediment types. Factors of more local importance are often indicated by the marked deviation of some points from otherwise excellent relationships. For example, points lying above the line relating tissue Sn concentrations in the clam Scrobicularia plana to those in 1 n HCl extracts of sediments were found to reflect the accumulation of tributyltin, a more readily bioavailable form of Sn. In the same species, unexpectedly high tissue-Cu concentrations were characteristic of very anoxic in sediments and tissue And As and Pb concentrations were suppressed in sediments having high concentrations of Fe oxides. Under field conditions, examples of deleterious effects on benthic organisms that can be attributed to specific metallic pollutants are comparatively rare. Effects of tributyltins from antifouling paints on oysters and neogastropods have been documented and their toxicity has undoubtedly led to environmental degradation in many UK estuaries and coastal areas. In estuaries contaminated with metal-mining wastes, the effects of Cu and Zn on species distribution can be observed, but they are generally less obvious than would be predicted from experimental data. Effects are ameliorated by the induction of metal tolerance mechanisms in some species and in others by the appearance of tolerant strains. The induction of metal detoxification systems involving the formation of granules or metal-binding proteins leads in some species to tissue concentrations that are orders of magnitude higher than normal. For example, high concentrations of Cd and Ag have been found in some species from the Severn Estuary, although there is no unequivocal evidence that either metal has caused deleterious effects on benthic populations. On the other hand, experimental studies with Ag, Cd, Cr, Cu, Hg and Zn show that they are toxic to some species at environmentally realistic levels. Since pollutants rarely occur singly, it is likely that in many moderately contaminated estuaries metals contribute to the stress to organisms caused by substances requiring detoxification. There has been much speculation over the years concerning the biomagnification of metals with increasing trophic levels along food chains. Whilst animals having higher metal concentrations than their prey are sometimes found, the only consistent evidence of biomagnification concerns methylmercury. When estuarine birds are considered, there are relatively few instances in which deleterious effects can unequivocally be attributed to metals or their compounds. However, the Mersey bird kill was attributable to alkyllead pollution from industry. Among other organometals, methylmercury has proved toxic to birds but, so far, no evidence for the toxicity of tributyltin has been reported. However, the compound may have affected bird populations through its effects on the abundance of prey organisms, particularly estuarine molluscs. Of the inorganic forms of metals, Pb in the form of shot has caused problems in many areas and Cd, Hg and Se are suspected of causing toxic effects. There is little field evidence that birds have been affected by Ag, As, Cr, Cu or Zn individually. On the other hand, it is difficult to exclude the possibility that, additively, these metals may produce a significant effect. In part, the lack of evidence reflects the fact that relatively little research has been done. There is scope for more work on metals and organometals in estuarine birds, particularly with regard to their metabolism and their effects on juveniles and individuals subjected to stresses such as starvation.

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