Review: mine tailings in an African tropical environment—mechanisms for the bioavailability of heavy metals in soils

  • Belinda K. Kaninga
  • Benson H. Chishala
  • Kakoma K. Maseka
  • Godfrey M. Sakala
  • Murray R. Lark
  • Andrew Tye
  • Michael J. WattsEmail author
Original Paper


Heavy metals are of environmental significance due to their effect on human health and the ecosystem. One of the major exposure pathways of Heavy metals for humans is through food crops. It is postulated in the literature that when crops are grown in soils which have excessive concentrations of heavy metals, they may absorb elevated levels of these elements thereby endangering consumers. However, due to land scarcity, especially in urban areas of Africa, potentially contaminated land around industrial dumps such as tailings is cultivated with food crops. The lack of regulation for land-usage on or near to mine tailings has not helped this situation. Moreover, most countries in tropical Africa have not defined guideline values for heavy metals in soils for various land uses, and even where such limits exist, they are based on total soil concentrations. However, the risk of uptake of heavy metals by crops or any soil organisms is determined by the bioavailable portion and not the total soil concentration. Therefore, defining bioavailable levels of heavy metals becomes very important in HM risk assessment, but methods used must be specific for particular soil types depending on the dominant sorption phases. Geochemical speciation modelling has proved to be a valuable tool in risk assessment of heavy metal-contaminated soils. Among the notable ones is WHAM (Windermere Humic Aqueous Model). But just like most other geochemical models, it was developed and adapted on temperate soils, and because major controlling variables in soils such as SOM, temperature, redox potential and mineralogy differ between temperate and tropical soils, its predictions on tropical soils may be poor. Validation and adaptation of such models for tropical soils are thus imperative before such they can be used. The latest versions (VI and VII) of WHAM are among the few that consider binding to all major binding phases. WHAM VI and VII are assemblages of three sub-models which describe binding to organic matter, (hydr)oxides of Fe, Al and Mn and clays. They predict free ion concentration, total dissolved ion concentration and organic and inorganic metal ion complexes, in soils, which are all important components for bioavailability and leaching to groundwater ways. Both WHAM VI and VII have been applied in a good number of soils studies with reported promising results. However, all these studies have been on temperate soils and have not been tried on any typical tropical soils. Nonetheless, since WHAM VII considers binding to all major binding phases, including those which are dominant in tropical soils, it would be a valuable tool in risk assessment of heavy metals in tropical soils. A discussion of the contamination of soils with heavy metals, their subsequent bioavailability to crops that are grown in these soils and the methods used to determine various bioavailable phases of heavy metals are presented in this review, with an emphasis on prospective modelling techniques for tropical soils.


Heavy metals Bioavailability Mine tailings Speciation WHAM Tropical soils 



Authors acknowledge the Royal Society-Department for International Development (DfID) for funding the work under the Project-AQ140000, “Strengthening African capacity in soil geochemistry for agriculture and health”.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zambia Agriculture Research InstituteChilangaZambia
  2. 2.Department of Soil Science, School of Agricultural SciencesUniversity of ZambiaLusakaZambia
  3. 3.Copperbelt UniversityKitweZambia
  4. 4.School of Biosciences, Sutton Bonington CampusUniversity of NottinghamLoughboroughUK
  5. 5.Inorganic Geochemistry, Centre for Environmental GeochemistryBritish Geological SurveyKeyworthUK

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