Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

A millennial-scale record of Pb and Hg contamination in peatlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California, USA

May 1, 2016

In this paper, we provide the first record of millennial patterns of Pb and Hg concentrations on the west coast of the United States. Peat cores were collected from two micro-tidal marshes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California. Core samples were analyzed for Pb, Hg, and Ti concentrations and dated using radiocarbon, 210Pb, and 137Cs. Pre-anthropogenic concentrations of Pb and Hg in peat ranged from 0.60 to 13.0 µg g-1and from 6.9 to 71 ng g-1, respectively. For much of the past 6000+ years, the Delta was free from anthropogenic pollution, however, beginning in ~1425 CE, Hg and Pb concentrations, Pb/Ti ratios, Pb enrichment factors (EFs), and HgEFs all increased. Pb isotope compositions of the peat suggest that this uptick was likely caused by smelting activities originating in Asia. The next increases in Pb and Hg contamination occurred during the California Gold Rush (beginning ~1850 CE), when concentrations reached their highest levels (74 µg g-1 Pb, 990 ng g-1 Hg; PbEF = 12 and HgEF = 28). Lead concentrations increased again beginning in the ~1920s with the incorporation of Pb additives in gasoline. The phase-out of lead additives in the late 1980s was reflected in Pb isotope ratios and reductions in Pb concentrations in the surface layers of the peat. The rise and fall of Hg contamination was also tracked by the peat archive, with the highest Hg concentrations occurring just before 1963 CE and then decreasing during the post-1963 period. Overall, the results show that the Delta was a pristine region for most of its ~6700-year existence; however, since ~1425 CE, it has received Pb and Hg contamination from both global and regional sources.