Research Press Release

Environment: Levels of lithium in waterways of Seoul assessed

Nature Communications

December 4, 2019

Lithium from electronics and batteries may be entering rivers and contaminating tap water in Seoul, South Korea, suggests a paper in Nature Communications. The study suggests that lithium concentrations in waterways are correlated with population density, and that waste-water treatment plants appear to be ineffective at removing this element.

The popularity and demand for mobile phones and electric-powered vehicles has led to an increase in the use of lithium. Although future demand is projected to increase, there are few lithium disposal guidelines and little knowledge of how manufacturing and disposal affects the environment and human health.

Jong-Sik Ryu and colleagues sampled water along the Han River basin, which is the main source of tap water for Seoul, the largest city in South Korea. The authors found that compared to other rivers worldwide, the concentration of lithium in the upper Han River is lower. However, as the river passed through the city and the population density increased, lithium concentrations were found to be up to 600% higher than those upstream. The authors suggest that anthropogenic activities are responsible for this change, and observed a similar trend in lithium concentrations in tap water samples as population increased. In an analysis of the isotopic composition, they found that the lithium entering the Han River appears to come from lithium-ion batteries, therapeutic drugs and food waste.

The authors argue that their study reveals a need for better monitoring, identification of risk zones, and overall minimization of lithium-related impacts on ecosystems and human health.

doi:10.1038/s41467-019-13376-y

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