Metal and Mineral Commodities in the Built and Waste Stream Environments: Uses, Characteristics, and Environmental/Health Implications

Scientist working at waste site.

Many metal and mineral commodities are present as primary materials of the built environment, such as copper pipes and wiring, steel rebars and girders, gypsum wallboard, cement, and concrete. Many metal or mineral commodities (e.g., lead, copper, arsenic, antimony, asbestos) are also present in lower levels as natural trace constituents, purposeful additives, or anthropogenic contaminants in primary materials of the built environment. The concentrations and forms of many trace metal and mineral commodities in built environment materials are often poorly understood. Also not universally well understood are the potential adverse effects that metal and mineral commodities (both primary and trace) can have on exposed ecosystems and humans if released into the environment by disasters, purposeful demolition, or improper disposal.

Metal commodities can also be present in a wide variety of waste streams left over after human activities (e.g., mine waters, mine wastes, smelter slag, mineral processing fluids, municipal biosolids). It is well known that recovery and reuse of metals from some waste streams (e.g., copper from mine waters, lead from batteries) can decrease U.S. reliance on primary resources and lessen unwanted dispersion of metals in the environment, while at the same time reducing disposal costs and regulatory liabilities for generators of waste streams. However, the concentrations, forms, and economic implications of many potentially valuable metals are not well documented in many types of waste streams. Recovery of these potentially valuable commodities, such as gold and platinum-group elements, and newly emerging technologically important (critical) elements (e.g., rare earth elements, gallium, and germanium) may ultimately provide new sources for these commodities and offset disposal costs of waste streams.

This project is carrying out a reconnaissance study of the concentrations, forms, and environmental health implications of previously poorly characterized mineral and metal commodities in the built (Task 1) and waste stream (Task 2) environments.

Relevance and impact

The project addresses several key aspects of the USGS Mineral Resources Program’s mission. The project will aid in collection and analysis of data on the production and consumption of metal and mineral commodities within the US and in other countries, by providing insights into the extent to which trace metal or mineral commodities are incorporated into the built environment or contained within waste streams. The project will also work toward the MRP goal of understanding the life cycles of various mineral or metal commodities by articulating: 1) the fate of metal commodities in waste streams and; 2) the potential environmental and health implications of metal and mineral commodities released from the built and waste stream environments by disasters.