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Emerging investigator series: Atmospheric cycling of indium in the northeastern United States

March 28, 2019

Indium is critical to the global economy and is used in an increasing number of electronics and new energy technologies. However, little is known about its environmental behavior or impacts, including its concentrations or cycling in the atmosphere. This study determined indium concentrations in air particulate matter at five locations across the northeastern United States over the course of one year, in 1995. Historical records from a Massachusetts bog core showed that indium atmospheric concentrations in this region changed only modestly between 1995 and 2010. Atmospheric indium concentrations varied significantly both geographically and temporally, with average concentrations in PM3 of 2.1 ± 1.6 pg m−3 (1 standard deviation), and average particle-normalized concentrations of 0.2 ± 0.2 μg In per g PM3. Peaks in the particle-normalized concentrations in two New York sites were correlated with wind direction; air coming from the north contributed higher concentrations of indium than air coming from the west. This correlation, along with measurements of indium in zinc smelter emissions and coal fly ash, suggests that indium in the atmosphere in the northeastern United States comes from a relatively constant low-level input from coal combustion in the midwest, and higher but more sporadic contributions from the smelting of lead, zinc, copper, tin, and nickel north of the New York sample sites. Understanding the industrial sources of indium to the atmosphere and how they compare with natural sources can lead to a better understanding of the impact of human activities on the indium cycle, and may help to establish a baseline for monitoring future impacts as indium use grows.