Purpose This contribution investigates agricultural soils and sedimentary deposits in the province of Ferrara (Padanian alluvial plain, Northern Italy) in order to: examine their genesis; to define the geochemical background of the area; and to evaluate the existence of anthropogenic contamination. Moreover, environmental risk related to the presence of potentially toxic heavy metals that can be transferred into agricultural products (and consequently bio-accumulated in the food chain) was also assessed. Materials and methods The analyses (reported in an extensive supplementary dataset) include XRD, XRF and ICP-MS assessment of bulk sediments, tests of metal extraction with aqua regia, as well as analyses of local agricultural products, i.e. biomonitoring which is important in the evaluation of element mobility. Results and discussion Based on the results, GIS-based geochemical maps were produced and local background levels were defined. This approach demonstrated that high concentrations of Cr and Ni is a natural (geogenic) feature of the local alluvial terrains, which in turn is related to the origin and provenance of the sediments, as confirmed by the lack of top enrichment in all of the investigated sites. Tests of metal extraction and analyses of agricultural products provide guidelines for agricultural activities, suggesting that extensive use of sewage sludge, industrial slurry and manure (that are often rich in metals) should be minimised. Conclusions The dataset reported in this paper shows that the agricultural terrains of the studied alluvial plain are not characterised by anthropogenic heavy metal pollution. In spite of the elevated natural background of Cr and Ni, most of the local agricultural products do not show significant evidence of bio-magnification. Exceptions are represented by forage grass (alfalfa) and corn (maize) that tend to uptake As and Ni, respectively. This demonstrates that in agricultural areas, a geochemical risk assessment must include both soil and plant investigations.
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