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An exploratory study of potential As and Pb contamination by atmospheric deposition in two urban vegetable gardens in Rome, Italy

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A preliminary study was carried out in Rome (Italy) to assess the potential role of atmospheric deposition in trace element contamination in urban vegetable gardens relative to human health risk from crop consumption.

Materials and methods

Two sites were selected on the basis of previously known contamination issues. Atmospheric deposition, parent material, soils properties affecting trace element mobility, and various anthropogenic inputs were considered. Soil samples were taken at depth from two points in each garden, within 5 cm of sampled crops. Inputs and crops were sampled and analysed for As and Pb content. A rain and dust gauge was set up in each garden for the duration of 93 days (late spring to late summer) for atmospheric deposition sampling.

Results and discussion

Atmospheric deposition influx was high at both sites (2.22 and 2.32 As and 2.67 and 3.42 Pb μg m−3 day−1). Soil pH was between 6.70 and 7.57 and texture varied from loamy sand to clay loam (3.4 to 31.9 % clay content). CEC ranged between 21.6 and 54.2 meq/100 g within rooting depth, rising almost commensurately with soil organic carbon (SOC) content (1.87–8.37 %). Somewhat high total soil Pb content (80.8–522.7 ppm) contrasted with negligible exchangeability and crop content (<0.01 ppm). Total soil As (17.0–32.0 ppm) corresponded with exchangeable and crop As for one site in one of the gardens. Leaves evinced high As accumulation levels (16.0–41.2 ppm) in all crops. High amounts of atmospheric Pb combined with negligible amounts of extractable Pb and Pb plant tissue content point to particulate inhalation and ingestion as a main health threat in the case of Pb. In contrast, food intake seems to be of greater concern relative to high As contamination. Greater soil As solubility may be explanatory, but the mostly low amounts of extractable As and the high atmospheric As suggest an airborne route being playing an important role.


Preliminary results suggest that research on trace element contamination in urban gardens should consider atmospheric deposition as a major contributing source.

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The project was financed by a Fulbright Teaching/Research Award. For their generous support and helpful comments, special thanks go to the FP and OI gardeners, to Dr. Luigi Piga, Dr. Mauro Ferrini, and Dr. Carlo Cellamare at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, to Dr. Beatrice Pezzarossa, Dr. Francesca Bretzel, Dr. Roberto Pini, and Dr. Gianniantonio Petruzzelli at the Institute of Ecosystem Study (Pisa). Many thanks also go to Katia Circelli for her fieldwork and laboratory assistance.

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Correspondence to Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro.

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Responsible editor: Maxine J. Levin

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Engel-Di Mauro, S. An exploratory study of potential As and Pb contamination by atmospheric deposition in two urban vegetable gardens in Rome, Italy. J Soils Sediments 18, 426–430 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11368-016-1445-y

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  • Arsenic
  • Atmospheric deposition
  • Lead
  • Trace element contamination
  • Urban gardens