Isotopic constraints on the fate of petroleum residues sequestered in salt marsh sediments. Academic Article uri icon


  • To provide a new perspective on the fate of petroleum in the marine environment, we utilized variations in the natural abundance of radiocarbon (14C) to detect and quantify petroleum residues that have persisted in Wild Harbor sediments, West Falmouth, MA, for more than 30 years. The 5730-yr half-life of 14C makes this isotope ideal for the detection of fossil-fuel-derived contaminants (14C free) within different fractions of natural organic matter (modern 14C content) in environmental matrixes. Samples of both contaminated and uncontaminated sediments were sequentially treated, first by solvent extraction, followed by saponification, and then acid hydrolysis. Radiocarbon analysis of the sediment residues and select extracts was performed to probe for the presence of fossil fuel contaminants and/or their metabolites in different pools of sedimentary organic matter. Our results indicate that the majority of fossil carbon is solvent-extractable and has not been incorporated in the insoluble organic matter in sediment. Unextracted sediments contaminated with petroleum contain significantly less 14C than extracted sediments, and isotope mass balance calculations suggest that up to approximately 9% of the total organic carbon (TOC) in the petroleum contaminated sediment horizons is derived from solvent-extractable petroleum. These estimates are similar to values calculated when the total quantities of oil (measured by gas chromatography with flame ionization detector (GC-FID)) are compared to TOC content (determined by elemental analysis). These results pave the way for applications of this isotopic approach to more complex environmental systems where the fate of contaminants is less certain.

publication date

  • April 15, 2005