Hypothetical Soil Thresholds for Biological Effects of Rare Earth Elements

  •  Gunnar Bengtsson    


Objectives: Anthropogenic exposures to rare earth elements are poorly known and there is limited information on their toxicity and ecotoxicity. At the same time, world production of rare earth elements has doubled every 15 years over the last half-century, and high environmental concentrations of gadolinium and lanthanum have already been found. The current review aims to give some estimates of overall exposures and an initial in-depth appraisal of thresholds for effects on agricultural soil. The results are envisaged to be used in initial assessments of agricultural soil where the natural concentrations have been anthropogenically enhanced.

Methods: An extensive review has been made of available scientific literature. Criteria have been established for the selection and analysis of eligible research. For instance, only effects on soils with vegetation have been included in the assessment of biological effects. A species sensitivity distribution based on 25% inhibition of organism functions has been used to establish thresholds for effects on soil organisms.

Results: Around the year 2000, mean anthropogenic contributions of lanthanides in European soil regions were at most a few per cent of the total soil content. Since then, they should have increased considerably. The proposed hypothetical threshold for agricultural soils is 1125 mg total rare earth element per kg of soil. This threshold is about 8 times the natural soil concentration.

Conclusions: If this result holds up to scrutiny, it implies that general anthropogenic pollution by rare earth elements will not be a threat to agricultural sustainability for the coming generation. A preliminary assessment suggests that this threshold would also protect humans from adverse effects due to secondary exposure.

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