Anthropogenic contamination of residential environments from smelter As, Cu and Pb emissions: implications for human health

Kara L. Fry, Cassandra Anne Wheeler, Max M. Gillings, A. Russell Flegal, Mark Patrick Taylor*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Communities in low-income and middle-income countries (LMIC) are disproportionally affected by industrial pollution compared to more developed nations. This study evaluates the dispersal and associated health risk of contaminant-laden soil and dust at a copper (Cu) smelter in Tsumeb, Namibia. It is Africa's only smelter capable of treating complex Cu ores that contain high arsenic (As) contents (<1%). The analyses focused on the primary trace elements associated with ore processing at the smelter: As, Cu, and lead (Pb). Portable X-Ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF) of trace elements in soils (n = 83) and surface dust wipes (n = 80) showed that elemental contamination was spatially associated with proximity to smelter operations. Soil concentrations were below US EPA soil guidelines. Dust wipe values were elevated relative to sites distal from the facility and similar to those at other international smelter locations (As = 1012 μg/m2 (95% CI 687–1337); Cu = 1838 μg/m2 (95% CI 1191–2485); Pb = 1624 μg/m2 (95% CI 862–2385)). Source apportionment for Pb contamination was assessed using Pb isotopic compositions (PbIC) of dust wipes (n = 22). These data revealed that the PbIC of 73% (n = 16/22) of these wipes corresponded to the PbIC of smelter slag and tailings, indicating contribution from industrial emissions to ongoing exposure risk. Modeling of carcinogenic risk showed that dust ingestion was the most important pathway, followed by inhalation, for both adults and children. Dermal contact to trace elements in dust was also determined to pose a carcinogenic risk for children, but not adults. Consequently, contemporary smelter operations remain an ongoing health risk to the surrounding community, in spite of recent efforts to improve emissions from the operations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number114235
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • Smelter emissions
  • trace elements
  • contamination
  • health risk modeling
  • Pb isotopic compositions


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