Study shows no lead pollution in oilsands region

New research from world-renowned UAlberta expert contradicts current scientific knowledge.


(Edmonton) New research from a world-renowned soil and water expert at the University of Alberta reveals that there’s no atmospheric lead pollution in Alberta's oilsands region—a finding that contradicts current scientific knowledge.

William Shotyk, who specializes in research on heavy metal pollution, examined sphagnum moss from 21 separate peat bogs in three locations around the oilsands area, near open pit mines and processing facilities.

After measuring the heavy metal content in the moss samples in his ultra-clean lab at the U of A, Shotyk and his team compared them with moss samples of the same species from two areas in rural Germany that have the lowest concentrations of heavy metals in the country. What they found is that the Alberta mosses had even lower concentrations of lead and other heavy metals.

“I found the lowest lead levels I've ever seen in moss,” said Shotyk, who studied heavy metal pollution through moss in peat bogs for more than two decades in Europe before becoming the Bocock Chair in Agriculture and Environment in the U of A’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences in 2011.

He said that, in addition to lower concentrations of lead, he and his team also found lower concentrations of silver, cadmium, nickel, antimony and thallium; similar concentrations of molybdenum; and greater concentrations of barium, thorium and vanadium. The higher concentrations of barium and thorium reflect the abundance of dust particles in the air, whereas the vanadium concentrations are due to its abundance in the bitumen.

Shotyk explained that moss is often used to measure heavy metal deposits in Europe and North America because it’s an excellent indicator. “Whatever is in the air is in the moss.”

The findings also reveal, perhaps surprisingly to many Canadians, that lead concentrations in the mosses from Alberta are far lower than those found in surface layers of peat cores collected in recent years from British Columbia to New Brunswick.

Shotyk spent more than two decades in Switzerland and Germany conducting research on peat bogs and ice cores to detect environmental pollution and climate change. He discovered significant lead pollution in Switzerland and the Canadian Arctic dating back 3,500 years, all of it originating from smelting operations in what is now Spain and Portugal. In 2013, he was awarded the most prestigious award in soil science, the European Geosciences Union’s Philippe Duchaufour Medal, for his distinguished contributions to soil science.

Shotyk’s research was funded by Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions and was published in Environmental Science and Technology.