Environmental Geochemistry and Health

, Volume 41, Issue 5, pp 2239–2250 | Cite as

Assessment of air pollution by mercury in South African provinces using lichens Parmelia caperata as bioindicators

  • Nikolai PanichevEmail author
  • Ntebogeng Mokgalaka
  • Svetlana Panicheva
Original Paper


Large-scale assessment of atmospheric air pollution by mercury (Hg) using lichen Parmelia caperata as biological indicator was undertaken using samples from five provinces of South Africa collected between 2013 and 2017. Analysis of lichens provides time-integrated data, which correspond to the mean Hg concentration in air at a specific location over a long time period. Determination of Hg in lichens was carried out by direct thermal decomposition of samples using a Zeeman-effect atomic absorption spectrometer, thereby requiring no chemical pretreatment. The lowest mercury concentration of 60 ± 8.0 ng g−1 (n = 45) was measured in lichens from Limpopo province. This value was accepted as a background Hg concentration in SA lichens. The Hg in lichens from northern parts of Mpumalanga province varied from 72 ± 9.0 to 100 ± 17 ng g−1 (n = 45), while in southern parts of the province, where 11 coal-fired electrical power stations are located, values ranged from 139 ± 7.0 to 183 ± 10 ng g−1 (n = 28). The highest Hg concentration, 218 ± 21 ng g−1 (n = 10), was found in lichens from Secunda, Mpumalanga province. It could be traced to the possible Hg emission during thermal treatment of coal at the largest SA industrial plant that transforms coal into liquid fuels. In Pretoria and Johannesburg, cities in Gauteng province, Hg in lichens was between 110 and 162 ng g−1 (n = 48). Based on the results of measurements, the equation connecting Hg concentration in lichens with Hg concentration in air has been derived. It was used for the calculation of atmospheric Hg concentration in South African provinces. Calculated values (0.8–1.45 ng m−3) were found to be within statistical summary of mean atmospheric Hg in remote places (1.70 ± 0.17 ng m−3), and in other locations (1.5–3.0 ng m−3) lower than in impacted areas of the world (5.20 ± 3.47 ng m−3).


Gaseous elemental mercury Atmospheric air Lichens Hg in lichens and air correlation 



The authors thank the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) for financial support of the project (Grant No. 81298), Prof Thierry Regnier, Prof Sandra Combrinck and Ph.D. student Ms Mpho Mathebula for help in collection of lichens. We thank the members of the Department of Botany, Pretoria University, for the identification of lichens. We are grateful to both reviewers of this manuscript for useful questions, comments and recommendations which allow us to improve the article’s text.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemistry, Faculty of SciencesTshwane University of TechnologyArcadia, PretoriaSouth Africa

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