Overlapping redox zones control arsenic pollution in Pleistocene multi-layer aquifers, the Po Plain (Italy)

Marco Rotiroti, Tullia Bonomi, Elisa Sacchi, John M. McArthur, Rasmus Jakobsen, Alessandra Sciarra, Giuseppe Etiope, Chiara Zanotti, Veronica Nava, Letizia Fumagalli, Barbara Leoni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding the factors that control As concentrations in groundwater is vital for supplying safe groundwater in regions with As-polluted aquifers. Despite much research, mainly addressing Holocene aquifers hosting young (<100 yrs) groundwater, the source, transport, and fate of As in Pleistocene aquifers with fossil (>12,000 yrs) groundwaters are not yet fully understood and so are assessed here through an evaluation of the redox properties of the system in a type locality, the Po Plain (Italy). Analyses of redox-sensitive species and major ions on 22 groundwater samples from the Pleistocene arsenic-affected aquifer in the Po Plain shows that groundwater concentrations of As are controlled by the simultaneous operation of several terminal electron accepters. Organic matter, present as peat, is abundant in the aquifer, allowing groundwater to reach a quasi-steady-state of highly reducing conditions close to thermodynamic equilibrium. In this system, simultaneous reduction of Fe-oxide and sulfate results in low concentrations of As (median 7 μg/L) whereas As reaches higher concentrations (median of 82 μg/L) during simultaneous methanogenesis and Fe-reduction. The position of well-screens is an additional controlling factor on groundwater As: short screens that overlap confining aquitards generate higher As concentrations than long screens placed away from them. A conceptual model for groundwater As, applicable worldwide in other Pleistocene aquifers with reducible Fe-oxides and abundant organic matter is proposed: As may have two concentration peaks, the first after prolonged Fe-oxide reduction and until sulfate reduction takes place, the second during simultaneous Fe-reduction and methanogenesis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number143646
Number of pages11
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021


  • Groundwater quality
  • Iron
  • Methanogenesis
  • Peat
  • Sulfate
  • TEAPs

Programme Area

  • Programme Area 2: Water Resources


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