Global-scale patterns in anthropogenic Pb contamination reconstructed from natural archives

Samuel K. Marx, Shaqer Rashid, Nicola Stromsoe

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


During the past two centuries metal loads in the Earth's atmosphere and ecosystems have increased significantly over pre-industrial levels. This has been associated with deleterious effects to ecosystem processes and human health. The magnitude of this toxic metal burden, as well as the spatial and temporal patterns of metal enrichment, is recorded in sedimentary archives across the globe. This paper presents a compilation of selected Pb contamination records from lakes (n = 10), peat mires (n = 10) and ice fields (n = 7) from Europe, North and South America, Asia, Australia and the Northern and Southern Hemisphere polar regions. These records quantify changes in Pb enrichment in remote from source environments. The presence of anthropogenic Pb in the environment has a long history, extending as far back as the early to mid-Holocene in North America, Europe and East Asia. However, results show that Pb contamination in the Earth's environment became globally ubiquitous at the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution (c.1850-1890 CE), after which the magnitude of Pb contamination increased significantly. This date therefore serves as an effective global marker for the onset of the Anthropocene. Current global average Pb enrichment rates are between 6 and 35 times background, however Pb contamination loads are spatially variable. For example, they are >100 times background in Europe and North America and 5-15 times background in Antarctica. Despite a recent decline in Pb loads in some regions, most notably Europe and North America, anthropogenic Pb remains highly enriched and universally present in global ecosystems, while concentrations are increasing in some regions (Australia, Asia and parts of South America and Antarctica). There is, however, a paucity of Pb enrichment records outside of Europe, which limits assessments of global contamination.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)283-298
Number of pages16
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Early online date24 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016
Externally publishedYes


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