Trace element contamination of soil and dust by a New Caledonian ferronickel smelter: dispersal, enrichment, and human health risk

K. L. Fry*, M. M. Gillings, C. F. Isley, P. Gunkel-Grillon, Mark Patrick Taylor

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Metallurgical industries remain a considerable source of trace element contamination and potential human health risk. Determination of sources is a key challenge. With respect to the South Pacific's largest and longest operating metallurgic smelter in Nouméa, New Caledonia, determining the environmental impact and subsequent human health risk associated with local ferronickel smelting is complicated by natural geological enrichment of Ni and Cr. This study applies a multi-method and multi-matrix approach to disentangle smelter emissions from geogenic sources and model the consequent health risk from industrial activity. Dust wipes (n = 108), roadside soil (n = 91), garden soil (n = 15) and household vacuum dust (n = 39) were assessed to explore geospatial trace element (As, Cr, Cu, Fe, Mn, Ni, Pb, S, V and Zn) variations across outdoor and indoor environments. Enrichment factors (EF) identified elevated levels of smelter-related trace elements: S (EF = 7), Ni (EF = 6) and Cr (EF = 4), as well as Zn (EF = 4). Smelter-related elements in soil and dust deposits were negatively correlated with distance from the facility. Similarity of Pb isotopic compositions between dust wipes, surface soil and vacuum dust indicated that potentially toxic trace elements are being tracked into homes. Non-carcinogenic health risk modelling (Hazard Index, HI) based on 15 spatial nodes across Nouméa revealed widespread exceedance of tolerable risk for children (0–2 years) for Ni (HI 1.3–15.8) and Mn (HI 0.6–1.8). Risk was greatest near the smelter and to the north-west, in the direction of prevailing wind. Given the elevated cancer risk documented in New Caledonia, disentanglement of environmental from industrial sources warrants further attention to ensure community health protection. Our analysis illustrates how the confounding effects from complex environmental factors can be distilled to improve the accuracy of point source apportionment to direct future mitigation strategies.

Original languageEnglish
Article number117593
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Early online date28 Jun 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Jun 2021


  • Chromium
  • Ferronickel smelting
  • Human health risk
  • Nickel
  • Pacific islands


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