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Detected: Metals in the environment

New multimedia publication on the methods of HZG Environmental Chemistry

Please note: Since the 31st of March 2021 the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht – Center for Materials and Coastal Research has a new name: Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon. More information

Scientists of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG) present their modern analysis methods in a so-called Story Map, with numerous informative graphics and images. They use these methods to, among other things, detect heavy metals that can be problematic for the environment. These toxic substances hardly break down and linger in our environment for decades.

In hochmodernen Reinstraumlaboren finden Umweltchemikerin Anna Ebeling (rechts) und Abteilungsleiter Dr. Daniel Pröfrock selbst winzigste Schadstoff-Konzentrationen.

Scientist Anna Ebeling (right) and Department Head Dr Daniel Pröfrock. Photo: HZG/Christian Schmid

Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury naturally occur in the environment. However, human activities continuously cause large quantities to be released into the environment. Sources of pollution include particulate matter, industrial gases, and fertiliser. And this comes with consequences: The environmental toxins settle in soil, sediments, and waters. Ultimately, they can end up on our plates through the food chain.

Nevertheless, not all metals are always toxic: Take iron and magnesium, for example, which play an important role in metabolic processes in the body. With other metals, the concentration or chemical form in which they are present are decisive in their effects on an organism.

At the Marine Bioanalytical Chemistry department of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, new and powerful methods are developed to detect "classic" heavy metals, as well as more exotic elements in the environment, to determine the ways in which they are transported, and understand their behaviour in the environment. In laboratories specially designed for this purpose, the scientists evaluate the concentration of toxins in waters and sediment. Anna Ebeling, Tristan Zimmermann, and Daniel Pröfrock have now presented their research activities in an online publication – exciting, interactive, and comprehensible to the general public.

Department Head Dr Daniel Pröfrock, explains: "The many metal deposits in our environment can be detected using modern methods of analysis, and deposit pathways traced. Highly sensitive methods are above all required for water sample analysis. Our measurement methods are so sensitive that we could theoretically detect a sugar cube dissolved over a body of water the size of Lake Constance. The collected data can then be used to examine how effective measures to reduce pollutant contamination are. We can also use the data to make recommendations on how to reduce environmental contamination."

There are different methods for water sampling. Shown here is a wreath water sampler constructed from many plastic bottles. The bottles can be opened and closed under water, controlled from on board. Photo: Anna Ebeling/HZG

Having solid knowledge of metal concentrations in the environment is important, because the slightest concentrations of certain metals can already be poisonous to living beings. Therefore, limit values are in place for metals such as lead, copper, zinc, cadmium, and mercury, amongst others. International regulations are effective in reducing the environmental influx of such "classic" heavy metals, but these types of contaminants do not naturally break down. They permanently remain in the environment and can be released again. Currently, the melting of glaciers leads to a higher mobilisation of pollutants, stored in the ice for many decades. Extreme events such as floods can have a similar effect.

Moreover, exotic heavy metals from the group of rare earths or platinum materials are increasingly find their way into our environment. These elements can today be found in virtually every household, in computers, mobile phones, light bulbs, flat screens, solar panels, electric vehicles, or the catalytic converters of passenger cars.

Daniel Pröfrock: "We currently have very limited knowledge of these potentially new pollutants, above all concerning their possible impacts on the environment, food chain, and ultimately the health of people."

That's why more research studies are urgently needed, to detect possible harmful effects on aquatic and marine environments at the earliest possible stage. These are the types of studies the department of Dr Daniel Pröfrock will carry out in the future, in the newly established HZG Institute for Environmental Chemistry of the Coastal Areas.

Discover more about metals in the environment: Are they vital or poisonous?

Visit the Story Map, published on the "coastMap" portal: Metals in the environment:

The coastMap portal

In "coastMap", the marine Geoportal of the Institute of Coastal and Climate Research of the HZG, all research data are archived and made publicly available free of charge. coastMap as part of the newly founded Helmholtz Coastal Data Centers, or HCDC in short. It merges data of coastal and ocean observatories, ship campaigns of research teams of the HZG and cooperation partners, and numerical models pertinent to coastal zones and the climate, making them accessible to scientists and the public. The HCDC infrastructure is a comprehensive data and information structure that ensures cooperation and data exchange with other existing data centres and data structures of the Helmholtz Association, the German Alliance for Marine Research (DAM), and the NFDI4EARTH consortium in the national research data infrastructure.


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