Dangerous levels of toxic metal found at Devon beauty spot

Dangerously high levels of the heavy metal arsenic are posing a health risk to people using the site of a former mine in Devon, which is now a local beauty spot, a new study suggests.

The Devon Great Consols, part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape UNESCO World Heritage Site, was mined extensively in the 19th century for copper and arsenic.

It has since been transformed into a public leisure facility following the construction or redevelopment of various trails, tracks and facilities for walking, cycling and field visits.

However, new research by the University of Plymouth has shown some parts of the site contain arsenic levels more than 400 times that permitted for park-type soil within government guidelines.

It also suggests that adults or children visiting the site repeatedly for periods of several hours could be putting their health at risk, either as a result of ingesting or inhaling the substance or it coming into contact with their skin.

The study was carried out by academics and students from the University’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science, which has conducted several projects over a number of years examining the presence of toxic substances in the public realm.

At Devon Great Consols, five mines were worked in the mid-19th century over an area of 67 hectares in order to extract copper ore and the region soon became the largest producer of the metal in Europe.

As competition began to intensify, attention was shifted to arsenic and by the 1870s the area was responsible for one half of the world’s arsenic production. It finally closed in 1985.

Dr Charlotte Braungardt, Associate Professor in Environmental Science and the study’s lead author, said: ‘Arsenic is both highly toxic and chronic exposure at low levels can lead to serious health consequences, including the development of cancers and skin conditions.

‘So it is extremely concerning to see arsenic concentrations above safe levels right across an area now used so extensively by people of all ages, with just one of our 98 sample sites being below the UK guideline values for recreational sites, such as parkland. Some parts of the Devon Great Consols are certainly less contaminated than others, but our study suggests mitigation measures are urgently needed to protect the public and employees.’

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