BHP's Lead Turns up in the Mediterranean

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Green, Non-ferrous Metals

In a geological illustration of what goes around comes around, researchers at the University of Florida found lead deposits from hydrothermal vents associated with an underwater volcano off the coast of Italy. Hydrothermal springs release water often at high temperature that has traveled deep under the seabed and subsequently heated by subterranean geothermal activity and in the process left dissolved metals and minerals from the surrounding rocks. At first they assumed the lead was from local deposits in the Mediterranean but on closer examination using a (get this) Multi-Collector Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer – researchers found the lead matched deposits from Broken Hill in Australia. Apparently lead deposits, a little like human DNA, can be traced to their source by matching the isotope profile. The most likely explanation, according to the researchers, is the lead was mined, shipped to Europe and turned into fuel in the days when lead additives were prevalent. The exhaust fumes were then washed out into the atmosphere, seeping underground to be gradually recycled and combined with other mineral deposits on the seabed deposited by the hydrothermal activity, just as the original Broken Hill deposits were laid down millions of years ago.

If correct it has some telling lessons for us about the use and release of potentially harmful products, especially heavy metals, into our environment. They are rarely lost. Nature has her own way of recycling and concentrating these metals in ways we are still learning about. As commentators have rightly pointed out there are other explanations as to how deposits with such similar isotope profiles could have come about. We just liked the idea that in another thousand years of hydrothermal activity maybe BHP can go mine it’s lead again, only this time in the Mediterranean rather than in Australia.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (4)

  1. Andrew says:

    Interesting story Stuart, just 1 thing Broken Hill is in New South Wales NOT Western Australia.

  2. Stuart Burns says:

    Thanks for that Andrew, red face here.

  3. Tom Thumb says:

    A more likely explanation is that the isotope ratio happens to match that of another lead deposit halfway around the world. It would be highly unlikely that a gaseous dispersal of a few hundreds of tons of lead measured in PPMs, dissolved into billions of tons of rainwater at 1000 tons an acre in a typical Italian rainy season, then filtered through trillions of tons of rock down to the geothermal layer, diluted in a googol tons of groundwater would be detectable at the current laboratory limit of 0.02 µg/dL.

    Sloppy scientific reportage, it reminds me of that sci-fi hoax of a “piece of Mars” found in Antarctica, as though the asteroids have never existed, as though our entire body of knowledge was more than Earth and a full bucketfuls of Moon, and it just ‘chipped off the old red block’.

    Everything is becoming more adulterated globally, including what passes for ‘science’.

  4. Wolf says:

    The ‘scientists’ doing this study on the Italian seafloor vent had obviously too much of Italian red wine. This wine was probably also poisoned by bad BHP lead, a’potentially harmful’ product, ‘released’ into ‘our’ environment.
    Poor journalism – not researched whatsoever.

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