Estimating historical atmospheric mercury concentrations from silver mining and their legacies in present-day surface soil in Potosí, Bolivia

Journal Article (Journal Article)

Detailed Spanish records of mercury use and silver production during the colonial period in Potosí, Bolivia were evaluated to estimate atmospheric emissions of mercury from silver smelting. Mercury was used in the silver production process in Potosí and nearly 32,000 metric tons of mercury were released to the environment. AERMOD was used in combination with the estimated emissions to approximate historical air concentrations of mercury from colonial mining operations during 1715, a year of relatively low silver production. Source characteristics were selected from archival documents, colonial maps and images of silver smelters in Potosí and a base case of input parameters was selected. Input parameters were varied to understand the sensitivity of the model to each parameter. Modeled maximum 1-h concentrations were most sensitive to stack height and diameter, whereas an index of community exposure was relatively insensitive to uncertainty in input parameters. Modeled 1-h and long-term concentrations were compared to inhalation reference values for elemental mercury vapor. Estimated 1-h maximum concentrations within 500 m of the silver smelters consistently exceeded present-day occupational inhalation reference values. Additionally, the entire community was estimated to have been exposed to levels of mercury vapor that exceed present-day acute inhalation reference values for the general public. Estimated long-term maximum concentrations of mercury were predicted to substantially exceed the EPA Reference Concentration for areas within 600 m of the silver smelters. A concentration gradient predicted by AERMOD was used to select soil sampling locations along transects in Potosí. Total mercury in soils ranged from 0.105 to 155 mg kg-1, among the highest levels reported for surface soils in the scientific literature. The correlation between estimated air concentrations and measured soil concentrations will guide future research to determine the extent to which the current community of Potosí and vicinity is at risk of adverse health effects from historical mercury contamination. © 2010 Elsevier Ltd.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Hagan, N; Robins, N; Hsu-Kim, H; Halabi, S; Morris, M; Woodall, G; Zhang, T; Bacon, A; Richter, DDB; Vandenberg, J

Published Date

  • January 1, 2011

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 45 / 40

Start / End Page

  • 7619 - 7626

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1873-2844

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1352-2310

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2010.10.009

Citation Source

  • Scopus