The Historic Built Environment As a Long-Term Geochemical Archive: Telling the Time on the Urban “Pollution Clock”

Katrin Wilhelm*, Jack Longman, Christopher D. Standish, Tim De Kock

*Corresponding author for this work

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1 Citation (Scopus)
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This study introduces a novel methodology for utilizing historic built environments as reliable long-term geochemical archives, addressing a gap in the reconstruction of past anthropogenic pollution levels in urban settings. For the first time, we employ high-resolution laser ablation mass spectrometry for lead isotope (206Pb/207Pb and 208Pb/206Pb) analysis on 350-year-old black crust stratigraphies found on historic built structures, providing insights into past air pollution signatures. Our findings reveal a gradual shift in the crust stratigraphy toward lower 206Pb/207Pb and higher 208Pb/206Pb isotope ratios from the older to the younger layers, indicating changes in lead sources over time. Mass balance analysis of the isotope data shows black crust layers formed since 1669 primarily contain over 90% Pb from coal burning, while other lead sources from a set of modern pollution including but not limited to leaded gasoline (introduced after 1920) become dominant (up to 60%) from 1875 onward. In contrast to global archives such as ice cores that provide integrated signals of long-distance pollution, our study contributes to a deeper understanding of localized pollution levels, specifically in urban settings. Our approach complements multiple sources of evidence, enhancing our understanding of air pollution dynamics and trends, and the impact of human activities on urban environments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12362-12375
Number of pages14
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number33
Early online date12 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2023

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