Ria de Aveiro, a Portuguese coastal lagoon that exchanges water with the Atlantic Ocean, received the effluent from a chloralkali industry for over 50 years; consequently several tons of mercury had been buried in the sediments of an inner basin. To assess the importance (and seasonal variation) of the lagoon waters as carriers of mercury to the nearby coastal area, we measured total mercury levels in several compartments: in surface sediments, in surface and deep waters (including dissolved and particulate matter), and in biota. Dissolved (reactive and total) mercury concentrations both in surface and deep waters were low (<1 to 15 ng L−1). Mean mercury values in suspended particulate matter varied between 0.2 and 0.6 μg g−1 and in sediments between 1 and 9 ng g−1. Aquatic organisms displayed levels below regulatory limits but exhibited some bioaccumulation of mercury, with concentrations ranging from 0.05 to 0.8 μg g−1 [dry weight (dw)]. No seasonal pattern was found in this study for mercury-related determinations. Levels found in the estuary mouth during ebb tide provide evidence for the transport of mercury to the coastal zone. No significant changes in the partition of mercury between dissolved and particulate phases were found in the coastal waters in comparison with the values found in the estuary mouth. In spite of the high levels of mercury found inside some areas of the lagoon, the wide web of islands and channels allows some spreading of contaminants before they reach the coastal waters. Moreover, the low efficiency of local marine sediments in trapping mercury contributes to a dilution of mercury transported in suspended particulate matter over a broader area, reducing the impact in the nearby marine coastal zone.
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