Radium in New Zealand agricultural soils: Phosphate fertiliser inputs, soil activity concentrations and fractionation profiles

Andrew J. Pearson, Sally Gaw, Nikolaus Hermanspahn, Chris N. Glover, Chris W.N. Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Phosphate ores can contain high levels of 238U and its decay products. Of these decay products 226Ra is an important environmental contaminant, while 228Ra from 232 Th day may also be present, albeit at lower activity concentrations. Acid processing of phosphate ore to triple superphosphate elutes a large proportion of the 226Ra from the final product. However, fertiliser production in New Zealand generally avoids acid processing and instead uses single superphosphate and reactive phosphate rock to maintain crop yields, meaning that 226Ra is retained in the final product. As a first step towards characterising the human health impacts from fertiliser-borne radium, research was undertaken to identify loading and long-term accumulation of 226Ra and 228Ra in New Zealand agricultural soils, as well as the fractionation of 226Ra into different soil phases. Activity concentrations for 226Ra of up to 1.6 kBq/kg were determined in phosphate-containing fertilisers used in New Zealand. In contrast, 228Ra did not exceed 75 Bq/kg. Analysis of 40 New Zealand soils, covering a range of agricultural uses, showed activities of between (27–88)Bq/kg 226Ra and (21–102)Bq/kg 228Ra. Unexpectedly, there was also a strong correlation between the two radium isotopes. In 13 of the agricultural soils, all with very high available phosphate levels, the fractionation profile of 226Ra was determined. These data indicated that 226Ra largely remains immobile in the residual phase of the soil. Calcium and available phosphate were significantly correlated with binding of 226Ra into labile and non-labile fractions. Barium is also hypothesised to play a significant role in co-precipitating 226Ra into non-labile soil fractions. While a high percentages of 226Ra immobile in the non-labile fraction would allow for marked accumulation over time it may limit the availability for uptake into crops and thus the ionising radiation dose for consumers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-126
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Environmental Radioactivity
Publication statusPublished - Sep. 2019


  • Barite
  • Fertiliser contaminant
  • Soil fractionation
  • Superphosphate


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