Metals are ubiquitous in natural surface-water systems, both as dissolved constituents and as particulate constituents. Although concentrations of many metals are generally very low (hence the common term 'trace metals'), their effects on the water quality and the biota of surfacewater systems are likely to be substantial. Biogeochemical partitioning of metals results in a diversity of forms, including hydrated or 'free' ions, colloids, precipitates, adsorbed phases, and various coordination complexes with dissolved organic and inorganic ligands.
Much research has been dedicated to answering questions about the complexities of metal behavior and effects in aquatic systems. Voluminous literature on the subject has been produced. This paper synthesizes the findings of aquatic metal studies and describes some general concepts that emerge from such a synthesis. Emphasis is on sources, occurrence, partitioning, transport, and biological interactions of metals in freshwater systems of North America. Biological interactions, in this case, refer to bioavailability, effects of metals on ecological characteristics and functions of aquatic systems, and roles of biota in controlling metal partitioning.
This discussion is devoted primarily to the elements aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, and zinc and secondarily to cobalt, molybdenum, selenium, silver, and vanadium. Sources of these elements are both natural and anthropogenic. Significant anthropogenic sources are atmospheric deposition, discharges of municipal and industrial wastes, mine drainage, and urban and agricultural runoff.
Biogeochemical partitioning of metals is controlled by various characteristics of the water and sediments in which the metals are found. Among the most important controlling factors are pH, oxidation-reduction potential, hydrologic features, sediment grain size, and the existence and nature of clay minerals, organic matter, and hydrous oxides of manganese and iron. Partitioning is also controlled by biological processes that provide mechanisms for detoxification of metals and for enhanced uptake of nutritive metals. Partitioning is important largely because availability to biota is highly variable among different phases. Hence, accumulation in biological tissues and toxicity of an element are dependent not only on total concentration of the element but also on the factors that control partitioning.