Dietary exposure to heavy metals, namely cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), zinc (Zn) and copper (Cu), has been identified as a risk to human health through the consumption of vegetable crops. This study investigates the source and magnitude of heavy metal contamination in soil and vegetable samples at 46 sites across four vegetable growing regions in New South Wales, Australia. The four regions Boolaroo, Port Kembla, Cowra and the Sydney Basin were a mix of commercial and residential vegetable growing areas. The extent of metal contamination in soils sampled was greatest in regions located in the vicinity of smelters, such as in Boolaroo and Port Kembla. Soil metal concentrations decreased with depth at these two sites, suggesting contamination due to anthropogenic activities. Cadmium, Pb and Zn contamination was greatest in vegetables from Boolaroo, and Cu concentrations were greatest in vegetables sampled from Port Kembla. At Boolaroo, nearly all the samples exceeded the Australian Food Standards maximum level (ML) (0.01 mg kg−1 fresh weight) of Cd and Pb in vegetables. Over 63% of samples exceeded international food standard guidelines set by the Commission of the European Communities and the Codex Alimentarius Commission. All vegetables sampled from Cowra, which is a relatively pristine site had Cd and Pb levels below the Australian and international food standards guideline values. This study suggests that the Australian guideline values are more conservative in defining the ML for Cd and Pb in vegetable crops. This investigation highlights the increased danger of growing vegetables in the vicinity of smelters.
Keywords: contamination - transfer coefficients - guidelines - heavy metals - uptake