Surficial geochemistry and bioaccessibility of tellurium in semi-arid mine tailings

Environmental Chemistry
By:  and 



Tellurium (Te) is a critical element due to its use in solar technology. However, some forms are highly toxic. Few studies have examined Te behavior in the surficial environment, thus little is known about its potential human and environmental health impacts. This study characterizes two physicochemically distinct Te-enriched mine tailings piles (big and flat tailings) deposited by historic gold (Au) mining in the semi-arid Delamar mining district, Nevada. The big tailings are characterized by smaller particle size and higher concentrations of potentially toxic elements (up to 290 mg Te kg-1), which are enriched at the tailings surface. In contrast, the flat tailings have larger particle size and properties that are relatively invariant with depth. Based on the sulfate to sulfide ratio, the tailings were determined to be sulfate dominated suggesting a high degree of weathering, although the flat tailings did contain significant amounts of sulfides (~40%). Tellurium x-ray absorption spectroscopy of the big tailings indicates that tellurate, the less toxic Te species, is the principal form of Te. Electron microscopy indicates that most of the Te present at the site is associated with iron (oxy)hydroxides, sometimes with other potentially toxic elements, especially lead and antimony. Physiologically-based extraction tests indicate that substantially more Te is solubilized in synthetic stomach fluids than in lung fluids, with gastric bioaccessibility ranging from 13-31% of total Te. This points to low to medium bioaccessibility, which is common for iron (oxy)hydroxide associated elements. Together, these results represent a preliminary assessment of Te surficial behavior in a semi-arid environment and indicate that Te in these tailings represent a moderate health concern.
Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Surficial geochemistry and bioaccessibility of tellurium in semi-arid mine tailings
Series title Environmental Chemistry
DOI 10.1071/EN18215
Volume 16
Issue 4
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher CSIRO
Contributing office(s) Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center
Description 15 p.
First page 251
Last page 265
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