Uranium in agricultural soils and drinking water wells on the Swiss Plateau

Bigalke, Moritz; Schwab, Lorenz; Rehmus, Agnes; Tondo, Patrick; Flisch, Markus (2018). Uranium in agricultural soils and drinking water wells on the Swiss Plateau. Environmental pollution, 233, pp. 943-951. Elsevier Science 10.1016/j.envpol.2017.09.061

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Mineral phosphorus fertilizers are regularly applied to agricultural sites, but their uranium (U) content is potentially hazardous to humans and the environment. Fertilizer-derived U can accumulate in the soil, but might also leach to ground-, spring and surface waters. We sampled 19 mineral fertilizers from the canton of Bern and soils of three arable and one forest reference sites at each of four locations with elevated U concentrations (7–28 μg L−1) in nearby drinking water wells. The total U concentrations of the fertilizers were measured. The soils were analysed at three depth intervals down to 1 m for general soil parameters, total Cd, P, U and NaHCO3-extractable U concentrations, and 234/238U activity ratios (AR). The U concentrations and AR values of the drinking water samples were also measured. A theoretical assessment showed that fertilizer-derived U may cause high U concentrations in leaching waters (up to approx. 25 μg L−1), but normally contributes only a small amount (approx. 0–3 μg L−1). The arable soils investigated showed no significant U accumulation compared to the forest sites. The close positive correlation of AR with NaHCO3-extractable U (R = 0.7, p < 0.001) indicates that application of fertilizer can increase the extractable U pool. The lack of depth gradients in the soil U concentrations (1.5–2.7 mg kg−1) and AR (0.90–1.06) ratios are inconsistent with the accumulation of U in the surface soil, and might indicate some leaching of fertilizer-derived U. The AR values in the water samples were close to 1, possibly suggesting an influence of fertilizer-derived U. However, based on findings from the literature and considering the heterogeneity of the catchment area, the agricultural practices, and the comparatively long distance to the groundwater, we conclude that fertilizer-derived U makes only a minor contribution to the elevated U concentrations in the water samples.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > Physical Geography > Unit Soil Science
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography

UniBE Contributor:

Bigalke, Moritz


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology
900 History > 910 Geography & travel




Elsevier Science




Moritz Bigalke

Date Deposited:

22 Dec 2017 10:28

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:08

Publisher DOI:






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