University of Sussex
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Quantification of in situ heterogeneity of contaminants in soil: a fundamental prerequisite to understanding factors controlling plant uptake

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:54 authored by Jacqueline Yvette Thomas
Heterogeneity of contaminants in soils can vary spatially over a range of scales, causing uncertainty in environmental measurements of contaminant concentrations. Sampling designs may aim to reduce the impact of on-site heterogeneity, by using composite sampling, increased sample mass and off-site homogenisation, yet they could overlook the small scale heterogeneity that can have significant implications for plant uptake of contaminants. Moreover, composite sampling and homogenisation may not be relevant to target receptor behaviour, e.g. plants, and studies, using simplistic models of heterogeneity have shown that it can significantly impact plant uptake of contaminants. The alternative approach, to accept and quantify heterogeneity, requires further exploration as contaminant heterogeneity is inevitable within soils and its quantification should enable improved reliability in risk assessment and understanding variability in plant contaminant uptake. This thesis reports the development of a new sampling design, to characterise and quantify contaminant heterogeneity at scales, from 0.02m to 20m, using in situ measurement techniques, and 0.005m to 0.0005m, using ex situ techniques. The design was implemented at two contaminated land sites, with contrasting heterogeneity based upon historic anthropogenic activity and showed heterogeneity varying between contaminants and at different spatial scales, for Pb, Cu and Zn. Secondly, this research demonstrates how contaminant heterogeneity measured in situ can be recreated in a pot experiment, at a scale specific to the plant under study. Results, from 4 different plant species, demonstrated that existing simplistic models of heterogeneity are an inadequate proxy for plant performance and contaminant uptake under field conditions, and significant differences were found in plant contaminant concentrations between simplistic models and those based upon actual site measurements of heterogeneity. Implications of heterogeneity on plant roots were explored in the final experiment showing significant differences in root biomass between patches of differing contaminant concentrations.


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  • Biology and Environmental Science Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • dphil


  • eng


University of Sussex

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