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Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract - Plant and Environment Interactions

Simplified Method for Detecting Tritium Contamination in Plants and Soil


This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 32 No. 3, p. 988-995
    Received: June 24, 2002

    * Corresponding author(s): andraski@usgs.gov
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  1. B. J. Andraski *a,
  2. M. W. Sandstromb,
  3. R. L. Michelc,
  4. J. C. Radykc,
  5. D. A. Stonestromc,
  6. M. J. Johnsona and
  7. C. J. Mayersa
  1. a U.S. Geological Survey, 333 West Nye Lane, Room 203, Carson City, NV 89706
    b U.S. Geological Survey, Denver Federal Center, P.O. Box 25046 MS-407, Lakewood, CO 80225
    c U.S. Geological Survey, 345 Middlefield Road, MS-434 and MS-421, respectively, Menlo Park, CA 94025


Cost-effective methods are needed to identify the presence and distribution of tritium near radioactive waste disposal and other contaminated sites. The objectives of this study were to (i) develop a simplified sample preparation method for determining tritium contamination in plants and (ii) determine if plant data could be used as an indicator of soil contamination. The method entailed collection and solar distillation of plant water from foliage, followed by filtration and adsorption of scintillation-interfering constituents on a graphite-based solid phase extraction (SPE) column. The method was evaluated using samples of creosote bush [Larrea tridentata (Sessé & Moc. ex DC.) Coville], an evergreen shrub, near a radioactive disposal area in the Mojave Desert. Laboratory tests showed that a 2-g SPE column was necessary and sufficient for accurate determination of known tritium concentrations in plant water. Comparisons of tritium concentrations in plant water determined with the solar distillation–SPE method and the standard (and more laborious) toluene-extraction method showed no significant difference between methods. Tritium concentrations in plant water and in water vapor of root-zone soil also showed no significant difference between methods. Thus, the solar distillation–SPE method provides a simple and cost-effective way to identify plant and soil contamination. The method is of sufficient accuracy to facilitate collection of plume-scale data and optimize placement of more sophisticated (and costly) monitoring equipment at contaminated sites. Although work to date has focused on one desert plant, the approach may be transferable to other species and environments after site-specific experiments.

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Copyright © 2003. American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science SocietyPublished in J. Environ. Qual.32:988–995.