Environmental Trace Element Cycling

This course is part of the programme
Master’s study programme Environment (second cycle)

Objectives and competences

The goal of this course is to introduce the concept of cycling of trace elements in Earth’s environment to students who should learn that the fate, role, and effects of a given trace element to the environment and living organisms depend on its total concentrations and distribution between different chemical species. Natural biogeochemical cycles of trace elements in the Earth’s environment will be introduced together with anthropogenic activities that are dramatically interrupting them. The distribution of trace elements between atmosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere and their transport through the food web will be discussed. Students will gain a basic knowledge on trace elements ecotoxicology, environmental chemistry, role in nutrition, and effects on health and diseases. Analytical techniques used for trace elements measurements will be presented. At the end of the course, students are able to critically evaluate the data obtained in laboratories or published in scientific literature and are capable to estimate its relevance and consequences for life. They are also able to transfer theoretical knowledge for solving of practical problems.


For successful participation in the course the pre-knowledge on high school level of chemistry and biology is requested.


• Basics of trace elements cycling in the environment
• Basics of trace elements environmental chemistry and ecotoxicology
• Instrumental analytical techniques for the determination of total concentrations and speciation of trace elements in environmental and biological samples (atomic spectroscopy, elemental mass spectroscopy and hyphenated techniques)
• Measurement in the environment (quality control and assurance of measurements)
• Element by element; introduction to their biological importance, role in nutrition, health and diseases of living beings, and the impacts of anthropogenic activities (pollution) on trace elements distribution between major Earth's environmental compartments (lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere)

Intended learning outcomes

Knowledge and understanding:
Students gain the knowledge on dynamics of biogeochemical cycling of trace elements on the Earth. They learn that for understanding the fate, role and effects of trace elements on environment and living beings, it is necessary to know both, their total concentrations and distribution between different chemical species (speciation). Students are introduced to the most frequently used instrumental analytical techniques for the determination of the total concentration and the speciation of trace elements on low concentration levels in various environmental and biological samples. They become aware of the importance of quality assurance and control in measurement process, which ensure that final data are of adequate quality with known uncertainty. At the end of the course participant can critically estimate which technique is the optimal for intended use in practice. Basic principles of ecotoxicology and environmental chemistry of important trace elements that are learned by students. With this knowledge they understand not only the dynamics of processes influencing the natural distribution of trace elements between lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere but also the dramatic consequences (pollution) of changes that human activities are causing by interrupting and changing natural cycles. The importance of essentiality for normal physiological functioning of living organisms and potential toxicity of a given element is learned by students together with the most common symptoms of trace elements imbalances and toxicity in plants, animal and humans. Finally, students are learned that trace elements analysis are essentially applied today in the numerous investigations of the basic processes in the field of environmental and life sciences.


  • Wilkins, P. C. and Wilkins R. G., Inorganic chemistry in Biology, Oxford University Press. 1997.
  • Kellner, R. Mermet, J.M. Otto, M. Widmer, H.M., Analytical Chemistry, Wiley VCH, 2nd edition, 2004. E-version
  • Williams, R. J. P. Rickaby, R. E. M., Evolution's Destiny Co-evolving Chemistry of the Environment and Life, RSC Publishing 2012.
  • Nordberg, G. F, Handbook on the toxicology of metals,Elsevier, 3rd edition, 2008. Catalogue
  • Szpunar, J., Lobinski, R. Hypheneted Techniques in Speciation Analysis, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.
  • Yu, M. H., Environmental Toxicology, CRC Press 2004 E-version
  • Walker, C. H. Hopkin, S. P. Sibly, R. M. Peakall, D. B., Principles of Ecotoxicology, Taylor&Francis 2nd edition, 2001 Catalogue
  • Ibanez, J. G. Hernandez-Esparza, M. Doria-Serrano, C. Fregoso-Infante, A., Environmental Chemistry Fundamentals, Springer, 2007. E-version


At the end of the course students prepare the seminar with the subject closely connected to the course. Seminar is shared electronically with all participants (50%). After the 20 min oral presentation of the seminar, student knowledge is estimated through the discussion with other participants of the course and by answers on the lecturers’ questions (50%).

Lecturer's references

Full Professor for Ecotechnology at the Jozef Stefan International postgraduate school

PEETERS, Kelly, ZULIANI, Tea, ŠČANČAR, Janez, MILAČIČ, Radmila. The use of isotopically enriched tin tracers to follow the transformation of organotin compounds in landfill leachate. Water research, ISSN 0043-1354. [Print ed.], 2014, vol. 53, str. 297-309, doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2014.01.034. [COBISS.SI-ID 27462695]

NOVAK, Petra, ZULIANI, Tea, MILAČIČ, Radmila, ŠČANČAR, Janez. Development of an analytical procedure for the determination of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in environmental water samples by GC-ICP-MS. Analytica chimica acta, ISSN 0003-2670. [Print ed.], 2014, vol. 827, str. 67-73, doi: 10.1016/j.aca.2014.04.020. [COBISS.SI-ID 27631399]

ŠČANČAR, Janez, ZULIANI, Tea, ŽIGON, Dušan, MILAČIČ, Radmila. Ni speciation in tea infusions by monolithic chromatographyICP-MS and Q-TOF-MS. Analytical and bioanalytical chemistry, ISSN 1618-2642, 2013, vol. 405, no. 6, str. 2041-2051, doi: 10.1007/s00216-012-6611-5. [COBISS.SI-ID 26348327], [JCR, SNIP, WoS do 12. 2. 2014: št. citatov (TC): 3, čistih citatov (CI): 1, normirano št. čistih citatov (NC): 0, Scopus do 22. 3. 2014: št. citatov (TC): 3, čistih citatov (CI): 1, normirano št. čistih citatov (NC): 0]

NOVOTNIK, Breda, ZULIANI, Tea, ŠČANČAR, Janez, MILAČIČ, Radmila. Inhibition of the nitrification process in activated sludge by trivalent and hexavalent chromium, and partitioning of hexavalent chromium between sludge compartments. Chemosphere, ISSN 0045-6535. [Print ed.], 2014, vol. 105, str. 87-94, doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2013.12.096. [COBISS.SI-ID 27432487]

MARTINČIČ, Anže, ČEMAŽAR, Maja, SERŠA, Gregor, KOVAČ, Viljem, MILAČIČ, Radmila, ŠČANČAR, Janez. A novel method for speciation of Pt in human serum incubated with cisplatin, oxaliplatin and carboplatin by conjoint liquid chromatography on monolithic disks with UV and ICP-MS detection. Talanta, ISSN 0039-9140. [Print ed.], 2013, vol. 116, str.141-148, doi: 10.1016/j.talanta.2013.05.016. [COBISS.SI-ID 26734631]