Sources, behaviour, and environmental and human health risks of high-technology rare earth elements as emerging contaminants

Willis Gwenzi*, Lynda Mangori, Concilia Danha, Nhamo Chaukura, Nothando Dunjana, Edmond Sanganyado

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

446 Citations (Scopus)


Recent studies show that high-technology rare earth elements (REEs) of anthropogenic origin occur in the environment including in aquatic systems, suggesting REEs are contaminants of emerging concern. However, compared to organic contaminants, there is a lack of comprehensive reviews on the anthropogenic sources, environmental behaviour, and public and ecological health risks of REEs. The current review aims to: (1) identify anthropogenic sources, transfer mechanisms, and environmental behaviour of REEs; (2) highlight the human and ecological health risks of REEs and propose mitigation measures; and (3) identify knowledge gaps and future research directions. Out of the 17 REEs, La, Gd, Ce and Eu are the most studied. The main sources of anthropogenic REE include; medical facilities, petroleum refining, mining and technology industries, fertilizers, livestock feeds, and electronic wastes and recycling plants. REEs are mobilized and transported in the environment by hydrological and wind-driven processes. Ecotoxicological effects include reduced plant growth, function and nutritional quality, genotoxicity and neurotoxicity in animals, trophic bioaccumulation, chronic and acute toxicities in soil organisms. Human exposure to REEs occurs via ingestion of contaminated water and food, inhalation, and direct intake during medical administration. REEs have been detected in human hair, nails, and biofluids. In humans, REEs cause nephrogenic systemic fibrosis and severe damage to nephrological systems associated with Gd-based contrast agents, dysfunctional neurological disorder, fibrotic tissue injury, oxidative stress, pneumoconiosis, cytotoxicity, anti-testicular effects, and male sterility. Barring REEs in medical devices, epidemiological evidence directly linking REEs in the environment to human health conditions remains weak. To minimize health risks, a conceptual framework and possible mitigation measures are highlighted. Future research is needed to better understand sources, environmental behaviour, ecotoxicology, and human epidemiology. Moreover, research on REEs in developing regions, including Africa, is needed given prevailing conditions predisposing humans to health risks (e.g., untreated drinking water).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)299-313
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date27 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2018
Externally publishedYes


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