Environmental Geochemistry and Health

, Volume 12, Issue 1–2, pp 28–49 | Cite as

The chemistry of aluminum in the environment

  • Charles T. Driscoll
  • William D. Schecher


There is increased concern over the effects of elevated concentrations of Al in the environment. Unfortunately, studies of the environmental chemistry and toxicity of Al have been limited by our understanding of the processes regulating the aqueous concentration, speciation and bioavailability of this element.

Although Al is the most abundant metallic element in the Earth's crust, it is highly insoluble and generally unavailable to participate in biogeochemical reactions. However, under highly acidic or alkaline conditions, or in the presence of complexing ligands, elevated concentrations may be mobilized to the aquatic environment. Ecologically significant concentrations of Al have been reported in surface waters draining “acid-sensitive” regions that are receiving elevated inputs of acidic deposition. Acid- sensitive watersheds are characterized by limited release of basic cations (Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, K+) and/or retention of strong acid anions (SO42−, NO3, Cl). Under these conditions inputs of strong acids are not completely neutralized, but rather acidic water is exported from the terrestrial environment. It has been hypothesized that acidic deposition to acid-sensitive watersheds mobilizes Al within the mineral soil, causing elevated concentrations in soil solutions and surface waters. As a result of mineral phase solubility constraints, concentrations of aqueous Al increase exponentially with decreases in pH below 6.0.

Monomeric Al occurs as a series of complexes in the aqueous environment, including aquo, OH, F, SO42−, HCO3 and organic species. Of these aquo, OH, F and organic complexes are the most significant in natural waters.

Elevated concentrations of Al are ecologically significant because: 1) Al is an important pH buffer in acidic waters, regulating the lower limit of pH values following acidification by strong acids; 2) through adsorption and coagulation reactions, Al may alter the cycling and availability of important elements like phosphorus, organic carbon and certain trace metals; 3) Al may serve as a coagulant facilitating the removal of light attenuating materials, thereby increasing the clarity and decreasing the thermal stability of lakes; and 4) Al is potentially toxic to organisms. Better understanding of the chemistry and speciation of Al is essential to assess these effects.


Strong Acid Elevated Concentration Basic Cation Acidic Deposition Acidic Water 
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© Sciences and Technology Letters 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles T. Driscoll
    • 1
  • William D. Schecher
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Civil EngineeringSyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

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