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Improved enrichment factor calculations through principal component analysis: Examples from soils near breccia pipe uranium mines, Arizona, USA

March 13, 2019

The enrichment factor (EF) is a widely used metric for determining how much the presence of an element in a sampling media has increased relative to average natural abundance because of human activity. Calculation of an EF requires the selection of both a background composition and a reference element, choices that can strongly influence the result of the calculation. Here, it is shown how carefully applied, classical principal component analysis (PCA) examined via biplots can guide the selections of background compositions and reference elements. Elemental data were treated using the centered log ratio (CLR) transformation, and multiple subsets of major and trace elements were examined to gain different perspectives. The methodology was applied to a dataset of elemental soil concentrations from around breccia pipe uranium mines in Arizona, U.S.A., with most samples collected via incremental sampling methodology. Storage of ore at the surface creates the potential for wind dispersal of ore-derived material. Uranium was found to be the best individual tracer of dispersal of ore-derived material to nearby soils, with EF values up to 75. Sulfur, As, Mo, and Cu were also enriched but to lesser degrees. The results demonstrate several practical benefits of a PCA in these situations: (1) the ability to identify one or more elements best suited to distinguish a specific source of enrichment from background composition; (2) understanding how background compositions vary within and between sites; (3) identification of samples containing enriched or anthropogenic materials based upon their integrated, multi-element composition. Calculating the most representative EF values is useful for numerical assessment of enrichment, whether anthropogenic or natural. As shown here, however, the PCA and biplot method provide a visual approach that integrates information from all elements for a given subset of data in a manner that yields geochemical insights beyond the power of the EF.