Study shows no lead pollution in the oil sands region

William Shotyk William Shotyk has measured heavy metal pollution in many areas in the world, by examining sphagnum moss. He found the sphagnum moss in the oil sands region to be the cleanest he's ever seen.
New research reveals that contrary to current scientific knowledge, there’s no atmospheric lead pollution in the oil sands region.

William Shotyk, a world-renowned soil and water expert who specializes in heavy metal pollution, examined sphagnum moss from 21 separate peat bogs in three locations around the oil sands area, near open pit mines and processing facilities.

After measuring the heavy metal content in the moss samples in his ultra-clean lab at the University of Alberta, Shotyk and his team compared them to moss samples of the same species in two areas in rural Germany that have the lowest concentrations of heavy metals in the country. What they found is that the Alberta mosses actually had lower concentrations of lead and other heavy metals.

“I found the lowest lead levels I've ever seen in moss,” said Shotyk who researched heavy metal pollution through moss in peat bogs for more than two decades in Europe before becoming the Bocock Chair in Agriculture and Environment in the U of A’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences in 2011.

He said that in addition to lower concentrations of lead, he and his team also found lower concentrations of silver, cadmium, nickel, antimony and thallium, similar concentrations of molybdenum, and greater concentrations of barium, thorium and vanadium. The elevated concentrations of barium and thorium reflect the abundance of dust particles in the air whereas the vanadium concentrations are due to its abundance in the bitumen.

Shotyk explained that moss is often used to measure heavy metal deposits in Europe and North America because it’s an excellent indicator. “Whatever is in the air is in the moss,” he said.

The findings also reveal, perhaps surprisingly to most Canadians, that lead concentrations in the mosses from Alberta are far lower than those found in surface layers of peat cores collected in recent years from British Columbia to New Brunswick.

Shotyk spent more than two decades in Switzerland and Germany conducting research on peat bogs and ice cores to detect environmental pollution and climate change. He discovered significant lead pollution in Switzerland and the Canadian Arctic dating back 3,500 years, all of it originating from smelting operations in what is now Spain and Portugal. In 2013, he was awarded soil sciences’ most prestigious award, the European Geosciences Union’s Philippe Duchafour Medal for distinguished service to soil science, defined in its widest sense.

Shotyk’s research, which was funded by Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, can be found online at Environmental Science and Technology.