Arsenic is a poisonous chemical element found in minerals and it is present in oil. High levels of arsenic in seawater can enable the toxin to enter the food chain. It can disrupt the photosynthesis process in marine plants and increase the chances of genetic alterations that can cause birth defects and behavioural changes in aquatic life. It can also kill animals such as birds that feed on sea creatures affected by arsenic.
In today's study, a team from Imperial College London has discovered that oil spills can partially block the ocean's natural filtration system and prevent this from cleaning arsenic out of the seawater. The researchers say their study sheds light on a new toxic threat from the Gulf of Mexico oil leak.
Arsenic occurs naturally in the ocean, but sediments on the sea floor filter it out of seawater, which keeps the levels of naturally occurring arsenic low. However, arsenic is also flushed into the ocean in wastewater from oil rigs and from accidental oil spills and leakages from underground oil reservoirs.
In the study, the researchers discovered that oil spills and leakages clog up sediments on the ocean floor with oil, which prevents the sediments from bonding with arsenic and burying it safely underground with subsequent layers of sediment. The scientists say this shutdown of the natural filtration system causes arsenic levels in seawater to rise, which means that it can enter the marine ecosystem, where it becomes more concentrated and poisonous the further it moves up the food chain.
The scientists say their work demonstrates how the chemistry of sediments in the Gulf of Mexico may be affected by the current oil leak. Professor Mark Sephton, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says:
"We can't accurately measure how much arsenic is in the Gulf at the moment because the spill is ongoing. However, the real danger lies in arsenic's ability to accumulate, which means that each subsequent spill raises the levels of this pollutant in seawater. Our study is a timely reminder that oil spills could create a toxic ticking time bomb, which could threaten the fabric of the marine ecosystem in the future."
Wimolporn Wainipee, postgraduate and lead author of the study from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, adds:
"We carried out our study before the leak in the Gulf of Mexico occurred, but it gives us a big insight into a potential new environmental danger in the region. Thousands of gallons of oil are leaked into the world's oceans every year from big spills, offshore drilling and routine maintenance of rigs, which means many places may be at risk from rising arsenic levels, which could in the long run affect aquatic life, plants and the people who rely on the oceans for their livelihoods."
For their research, the team analysed a mineral called goethite, one of the most abundant ocean sediments in the world, which is an iron bearing oxide.
The team carried out experiments in the laboratory that mimicked conditions in the ocean, to see how the goethite binds to arsenic under natural conditions. They discovered that seawater alters the chemistry of goethite, where low pH levels in the water create a positive change on the surface of goethite sediments, making them attractive to the negatively charged arsenic.
However, the scientists discovered that when they added oil, this created a physical barrier, covering the goethite sediments, which prevented the arsenic in the oil from binding to them. The team also found that the oil changed the chemistry of the sediments, which weakened the attraction between the goethite and arsenic.
In the future, the researchers plan to analyse other minerals such as clays and carbonates that are sediments on the ocean floor. Sediment content varies from ocean to ocean and the researchers will analyse how oil affects their ability to bind to arsenic after a spill.For further information please contact:
The full listing of authors and their affiliations for this paper is as follows:(1) Wimolporn Wainipee, (1) Dominik J. Weiss, (1) Mark A. Sephton, (1) Barry J. Coles , (1) Richard Court, (2) Catherine Unsworth,
(2) Natural History Museum, Department of Mineralogy, London, SW7 5BD, UK
2. About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.
In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.
Colin Smith | EurekAlert!
Listening in: Acoustic monitoring devices detect illegal hunting and logging
14.12.2017 | Gesellschaft für Ökologie e.V.
How fires are changing the tundra’s face
12.12.2017 | Gesellschaft für Ökologie e.V.
DNA molecules that follow specific instructions could offer more precise molecular control of synthetic chemical systems, a discovery that opens the door for engineers to create molecular machines with new and complex behaviors.
Researchers have created chemical amplifiers and a chemical oscillator using a systematic method that has the potential to embed sophisticated circuit...
MPQ scientists achieve long storage times for photonic quantum bits which break the lower bound for direct teleportation in a global quantum network.
Concerning the development of quantum memories for the realization of global quantum networks, scientists of the Quantum Dynamics Division led by Professor...
Researchers have developed a water cloaking concept based on electromagnetic forces that could eliminate an object's wake, greatly reducing its drag while...
Tiny pores at a cell's entryway act as miniature bouncers, letting in some electrically charged atoms--ions--but blocking others. Operating as exquisitely sensitive filters, these "ion channels" play a critical role in biological functions such as muscle contraction and the firing of brain cells.
To rapidly transport the right ions through the cell membrane, the tiny channels rely on a complex interplay between the ions and surrounding molecules,...
The miniaturization of the current technology of storage media is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. A research team from Kiel University has now managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface and to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold. The study has been published in the scientific journal Nano Letters.
Over the past few years, the building blocks of storage media have gotten ever smaller. But further miniaturization of the current technology is hindered by...
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
07.12.2017 | Event News
15.12.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
15.12.2017 | Materials Sciences
15.12.2017 | Life Sciences