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In most aquatic systems, concentrations of trace metals in suspended sediment and the top few centimeters of bottom sediment are far greater than concentrations of trace metals dissolved in the water column. Consequently, the distribution, transport, and availability of these constituents can not be intelligently evaluated, nor can their environmental impact be determined or predicted solely through the sampling and analysis of dissolved phases. This Primer is designed to acquaint the reader with the basic principles that govern the concentration and distribution of trace metals associated with bottom and suspended sediments.
The sampling and analysis of suspended and bottom sediments are very important for monitoring studies, not only because trace metal concentrations associated with them are orders of magnitude higher than in the dissolved phase, but also because of several other factors. Riverine transport of trace metals is dominated by sediment. In addition, bottom sediments serve as a source for suspended sediment and can provide a historical record of chemical conditions. This record will help establish area baseline metal levels against which existing conditions can be compared.
Many physical and chemical factors affect a sediment's capacity to collect and concentrate trace metals. The physical factors include grain size, surface area, surface charge, cation exchange capacity, composition, and so forth. Increases in metal concentrations are strongly correlated with decreasing grain size and increasing surface area, surface charge, cation exchange capacity, and increasing concentrations of iron and manganese oxides, organic matter, and clay minerals. Chemical factors are equally important, especially for differentiating between samples having similar bulk chemistries and for inferring or predicting environmental availability. Chemical factors entail phase associations (with such sedimentary components as interstitial water, sulfides, carbonates, and organic matter) and ways in which the metals are entrained by the sediments (such as adsorption, complexation, and within mineral lattices).