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Simultaneous Simulations of Uptake in Plants and Leaching to Groundwater of Cadmium and Lead for Arable Land Amended with Compost or Farmyard Manure

Charlotte N. Legind (1), Arno Rein (1), Jeanne Serre (2), Violaine Brochier (2), Claire-Sophie Haudin (3), Philippe Cambier (3), Sabine Houot (3), Stefan Trapp (1)

Legind & al., 2012
Legind & al., (2012), PLoS ONE 7(10)

Recycled organic waste product (OWPs) in agriculture may contain various metals and organic micro pollutants that can be harmful for ecosystems. However, metals uptake by plants is difficult to assess given that it is coupled with others processes [1] such as the water balance [2] and the leaching. In this study, the water budget of soil, the uptake in plants and the leaching to groundwater of cadmium (Cd) and lead (Pb) were simulated simultaneously using a physiological plant uptake model and a tipping buckets water and solute transport model for soil.

Main results

Amending soils with compost or sewage sludge is beneficial to the soil fertility due to the high content of organic matter and positive effects on the release of nutrients. On the other hand, amendments may contain various metals and organic micro pollutants that could induce some potential adverse effects to terrestrial ecosystems and human health. So, it is important to access the plant uptake of metals after OWPs amendment.

There are many factors affecting uptake of heavy metals into vegetation, among them, their water solubility. Indeed, dissolved metal species are transported together with the water into plants. Plants also change the water balance of the soil: about 2/3rd of the precipitated water is transpired in most ecosystems [3]. In summer, evapotranspiration is typically higher than precipitation, and the soil dries out. Hereby, also leaching of water and solute to groundwater is reduced or stopped. On the other hand, water and solute uptake into vegetation also depends on the distribution and availability of both in soil. Consequently, water balance, solute transport, leaching to groundwater and plant uptake of solute and water are coupled processes.

The objective of this work is to present and test a model framework for the simulation of the coupled transport of water and dissolved heavy metals, the uptake of both into crops, and leaching of solute and water to groundwater (figure 1).


Figure 1: Processes and compartments in the coupled soil solute transport, water balance and plant uptake model. W: water content, GW: groundwater, CGW: groundwater concentration, CW: soil pore water concentration.

Simulations were compared to results from a ten-year experimental field study, where four organic amendments were applied every second year (figure 2). Predicted concentrations slightly decreased (Cd) or stagnated (Pb) in control soils, but increased in amended soils by about 10% (Cd) and 6% to 18% (Pb). Estimated plant uptake was lower in amended plots, due to an increase of Kd (dry soil to water partition coefficient). Predicted concentrations in plants were close to measured levels in plant residues (straw), but higher than measured concentrations in grains. Initially, Pb was mainly predicted to deposit from air into plants (82% in 1998); the next years, uptake from soil became dominating (30% from air in 2006), because of decreasing levels in air. For Cd, predicted uptake from air into plants was negligible (1–5%).


Figure 2: Overview of the field and simulation study. For wheat and barley the starting point of growth takes place after seeding.

To conclude, comparison between simulated and measured concentrations in soils and plants showed an overall good agreement, but also deviations in details. The uptake into plants using water flux and heavy metal concentration in soil pore water yielded concentrations which are comparable to those measured in leaves and stems, but the approach does not seem applicable for concentrations in grains.

Full article: Click here


1. McLaughlin MJ, Smolders E, Degryse F, Rietra R (2011) Uptake of metals from soil into vegetables. In: Swartjes FA, editor. Dealing with contaminated sites. Springer, Dordrecht. 325–367.

2. Sauve S, Hendershot W, Allen HE (2000) Solid-solution partitioning of metals in contaminated soils: Dependence on pH, total metal burden, and organic matter. Environ Sci Technol 34: 1125–1131.

3. Larcher W (1995). Physiological Plant Ecology. Springer, Berlin, Germany.


1 Department of Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby, Denmark

2 Veolia Environnement – Research and Innovation, Rueil-Malmaison, France

3 INRA, UMR 1091 Environment and Arable Crop Research Unit, Thiverval-Grignon, France