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Table 2 Selenium an essential element with toxicity problems in the mining industry and beyond

From: Metal(loid) speciation and transformation by aerobic methanotrophs

The Recommended Daily Intake of selenium in the human diet is 55 mg d-1 (dietary reference intakes, 2000; Dietary Reference Intakes (2000) National Research Council. Washington: National Academic Press). The World Health Organization (WHO) has indicated that Se intake in the human diet in excess of 400 mg d-1 may be harmful to health, with signs of Se overexposure being evident at 750–858 mg d-1 [21]. Potentially, toxic levels of selenium in the environment may occur naturally due to the presence of seleniferous rocks and also due to human activities, particularly mining. Selenium concentrations in agricultural drainage water in the range 0.14–1.4 mg L-1 were reported to cause death and deformity in aquatic birds [22]. The WHO has set the maximum permitted Se concentration for drinking water at 40 mg L-1, although specific jurisdictions have set limits as low as 10 mg L-1. Water quality guidelines for freshwater and water used for agricultural irrigation water range from 1 to 150 mg L-1 [23]. Selenium is strongly enriched in coal compared to other rocks and so coal and the ash from coal combustion are major sources of toxic amounts of selenium. Selenium species enter the air due to combustion of coal. The selenium that remains in coal ash is predominantly in the toxic and water soluble selenite form. It is subject to sorption to various components of ash, though is generally mobile into the aqueous phase at acidic pH [24]. Waste water from coal mining operations may contain more than 1 mg L-1 of selenium [23]. Problems with Se (and other pollutants due to processing and burning of coal) are a particular concern in China, where coal production and use have more than doubled since 2000 and are predicted to continue to rise, while they have been stable in most other areas of the world [25].
Other emerging industries may provide new sources of potentially harmful selenium exposure. Selenium is a significant element in waste electronic and electrical equipment (e-waste). One study in West Africa (Ghana) found a doubling in blood selenium concentration (together with a tripling of mercury levels) in workers involved in incineration of e-waste [26].
As detailed in the main text, methanotrophs and other environmental bacteria have the capacity to produce Se (0)-containing nanoparticles. In addition to being valuable in detoxifying selenium contamination and in providing novel nanoparticles for use in electronics, such nanoparticles may find uses as slow-releasing selenium supplements for diets [27].