The dynamics of sediment-associated contaminants over a transition from drought to multiple flood events in a lowland UK catchment

Simon Pulley, Ian D L Foster, A Paula M Antunes

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticlepeer-review


Fine sediment in suspended form, recently deposited overbank and in temporary storage on or in channel beds, was collected in the Nene basin during a period of drought through to a period of four high flows. The sediment was analysed for arsenic, copper, lead, phosphorus and zinc concentrations with the aim of investigating their sources, movement, temporary storage and potential for environmental harm. Copper, lead and zinc probably originated from urban street dusts, phosphorus (originally in dissolved form) from sewage effluent and arsenic from natural soils developed over ironstone. There was little difference in the metal or arsenic concentrations in the sediment under different flow conditions; instead, proximity to pollutant sources appeared to control their concentrations. Phosphorus in tributary sub-catchments probably adsorbed to sediment during periods of low flow but these sediments were flushed away during high flows and replaced by sediment with lower concentrations. However, concentrations of all pollutants in overbank sediments along the Nene's main channel were not reduced in successive flood events, suggesting no first flush effect. Only phosphorus accumulated on sediment at concentrations exceeding those of its catchment-based sources (e.g. street dusts, channel banks and catchment soils). This scavenging of aqueous phosphate by sediment explained the difference in behaviour between phosphorus, arsenic and heavy metals. The surface area and organic matter content were shown to have a small effect on contaminant concentrations. Street dust contaminants only exceeded predicted effect levels in close proximity to urban areas, suggesting a small potential for harm to the aquatic environment. Arsenic concentrations exceeded predicted effect levels in most sediment samples. However, it has been shown to be largely non-bioavailable in previously published research on the Nene, limiting its potential for significant environmental harm. Phosphorus concentrations in river sediments are high in comparison to the soils in the catchment and in comparison with sediment–P concentrations in other published lowland catchment studies, indicating a large potential for eutrophication should the Phosphorus be, or become, bioavailable.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number5
Early online date20 Sept 2015
Publication statusPublished - 14 Feb 2016


  • Sediment-associated contaminants
  • heavy metals
  • arsenic
  • phosphorus
  • pollutant dynamics


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