Despite the dramatic decrease in airborne lead over the past three decades, there are calls for regulatory limits on this potent pediatric neurotoxin lower even than the new (2008) US Environmental Protection Agency standard. To achieve further decreases in airborne lead, what sources would need to be decreased and what costs would ensue? Our aim was to identify and, if possible, quantify the major species (compounds) of lead in recent ambient airborne particulate matter collected in El Paso, TX, USA.
We used synchrotron-based XAFS (x-ray absorption fine structure) to identify and quantify the major Pb species. XAFS provides molecular-level structural information about a specific element in a bulk sample. Pb-humate is the dominant form of lead in contemporary El Paso air. Pb-humate is a stable, sorbed complex produced exclusively in the humus fraction of Pb-contaminated soils; it also is the major lead species in El Paso soils. Thus such soil must be the dominant source, and its resuspension into the air, the transfer process, providing lead particles to the local air.
Current industrial and commercial activity apparently is not a major source of airborne lead in El Paso, and presumably other locales that have eliminated such traditional sources as leaded gasoline. Instead, local contaminated soil, legacy of earlier anthropogenic Pb releases, serves as a long-term reservoir that gradually leaks particulate lead to the atmosphere. Given the difficulty and expense of large-scale soil remediation or removal, fugitive soil likely constrains a lower limit for airborne lead levels in many urban settings.