National study explores the reaction and transport of tungsten in drinking water

Jan 27, 2011

A Kansas State University scientist is digging deep to solidify information about potential tungsten contamination in the nation's groundwater and aquifers.

Tungsten is a naturally occurring metallic element that in its alloy or solid form is primarily used for incandescent lightbulb filaments and X-ray tubes.

In an effort to limit toxins in the environment, tungsten is replacing lead in fishing weights and in ammunition for hunting and recreational shooting. The military is substituting tungsten in its high penetrators and small arms ammunition, as well as other ammunitions.

"Tungsten originally was thought to be nontoxic, as it was believed to be an inert metal of low environmental mobility," said Saugata Datta, assistant professor of geology at K-State. "But tungsten is a contaminant in groundwater and a growing concern."

Scientists and health officials began connecting tungsten to clusters of cases in the Western U.S. after finding high concentrations of the element in residents' bodies. People examined lived in towns near tungsten-bearing ore deposits and even hard metal processing plants. Drinking water in these areas has an elevated concentration of tungsten.

" studies have shown tungsten can be toxic and even carcinogenic," Datta said. "Because of this, we need to understand tungsten's in the environment, about which very little is known."

To find out how tungsten reacts and relates to groundwater and the surrounding environment -- referred to as biogeochemistry -- Datta recently began collaborating with Karen Johannesson, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane University.

Their research is being funded by a three-year grant issued by the Hydrology Division of the National Science Foundation in fall 2010.

The project investigates the biogeochemistry of tungsten reaction and transport in the environment. More specifically it's an evaluation of how tungsten concentrations change along groundwater flow paths and modify the groundwater makeup.

When tungsten is exposed to oxygen -- a process called oxidation -- it often seeps into the ground and even into groundwater-bearing aquifers. During this process the can also mix with organic matter present in natural soils. In the presence of sulfur rich solutions, it forms thiotungstate complexes, which are also toxic.

To gather information the researchers are looking at pristine aquifers, like the Ogallala, as well as affected aquifers. Data from these findings can be used to create a conceptual model for this project and future studies, Datta said.

"Looking at emerging contaminants is one of the biggest things for an environmental geoscientist, and health is a big issue connected to any elemental or environmental study we do," Datta said.

"We are trying to approach this project from the standpoint of understanding this element and its behaviors in the environment before taking our findings to the general public so the situation can be addressed," he said.

Datta's previous work studied arsenic levels in the groundwater in West Bengal, India, and Bangladesh. Along with a K-State graduate student, he looked at why naturally occurring arsenic -- another toxin in nature -- got into from river-borne sediments, and finding well locations for cleaner water.

Explore further: MEPs back plans to slash use of plastic shopping bags

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study finds link between metals and cancer

Apr 28, 2006

Researchers studying the effects of arsenic and tungsten on pregnant mice may have found a clue to the development of leukemia in 17 children in Fallon, Nev.

Uniform tungsten trimers stand and deliver

Sep 18, 2006

Like tiny nano-soldiers on parade, the cyclic tungsten trioxide clusters line up molecule-by-molecule on the titanium dioxide platform. One tungsten atom from each cluster is raised slightly, holding forth ...

Recommended for you

More, bigger wildfires burning western US, study shows

3 minutes ago

Wildfires across the western United States have been getting bigger and more frequent over the last 30 years – a trend that could continue as climate change causes temperatures to rise and drought to become ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rwinners
5 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2011
We are doomed... not by an asteroid, but by ourselves. Tungsten is use in lots of things, from drill bits to sand paper. Even tungsten carbide rings, as advertised on this page.

DOOOMED I TELL YOU!

More news stories

There's something ancient in the icebox

Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrape off everything—vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock. So scientists were greatly surprised ...

Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

Up to now, HONO, also known as nitrous acid, was considered one of the most important sources of hydroxyl radicals (OH), which are regarded as the detergent of the atmosphere, allowing the air to clean itself. ...

Turning off depression in the brain

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Thinnest feasible nano-membrane produced

A new nano-membrane made out of the 'super material' graphene is extremely light and breathable. Not only can this open the door to a new generation of functional waterproof clothing, but also to ultra-rapid filtration. The ...