Project Description

Background: Recent reviews of the impact of air pollution on human health have shown scientific evidence for the detrimental effects of air pollutants, including environmental toxins which may become blood-borne and translocate to tissues such as the liver, brain and kidney. Atmospheric pollution deposition from traffic and brake wear emissions have been discovered to be important potential sources of toxic metals including arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), iron (Fe), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), lead (Pb), tin (Sn), antimony (Sb), Uranium (U) and Zinc (Zn).  Soils can be used as tracers for these environmental toxins through identifying both anthropogenic and geogenic signatures. Chronic kidney disease (CKD), a collective term for many causes of progressive renal failure, is increasing worldwide due to ageing and a general increase in obesity and diabetes. CKD attributed to unknown aetiology (termed CKDu) is an increasing issue globally with the occurrence of geographic clusters appearing to suggest potential underlying environmental causes of CKDu. While Pb, Cd, mercury (Hg) and As have been reported as environmental nephrotoxins, the environmental factors that may cause CKDu require further exploration as CKDu has been reported in individuals without the known risk factors and the environmental factors may also be relevant to the heterogeneity of progressive CKD in diabetes and hypertension.

Rationale: Previous research indicates the need for greater understanding of the potential risk of environmental PTEs in urban areas and the link between CKDu and environmental PTEs, including arsenic and molybdenum.  Atmospheric pollution deposition, traffic and brake wear emissions have been cited as sources for these PTEs, with a blood-borne pathway of ultrafine particles of these PTEs which may translocate to the kidney.  Previous research has also highlighted the potential impact on socio-environmental inequalities. Geochemical data are compositional in nature in that they convey relative information. Compositional data analysis (CoDA) methods are frequently used to extract information from geochemical data by treating log ratio or equivalently transformed data. The proposed work will develop an approach through compositional data analysis approaches (including the use of balances) to find an elemental balance associated with CKDu and pollution data. The project will focus on (1) a statistical approach to explore the relationship between the elemental toxins as proxies for air and traffic pollution; (2) a compositional statistical approach to explore the association of  SIRs of CKDu with geochemical proxies of pollution, using urban soil geochemistry databases and the relationship with socio-economic indicators, (2) integration of findings into an overall urban environmental risk assessment, and (3) Stakeholder engagement to translate the findings into evidence-based policy communications. The student will be trained in Geographical Information Science (GIS), compositional data analysis approaches in programming language R and how to communicate a scientific message through stakeholder engagement.

Essential skills

  • Degree at undergraduate or Masters level in a relevant environmental subject
  • Experience in using statistical software packages (e.g. ArcGISPro / QGIS)
  • Good English skills (spoken and written)
  • Willingness to carry out field work and engage with partner organisations

Desirable skills

  • Experience in soil geochemistry
  • Experience in R programming
  • Experience in spatial statistical data analysis techniques

Supervision: The student will be based largely at Queen’s University Belfast, with additional time spent at University of Aberdeen. Jenny McKinley (QUB) will be the primary supervisor, responsible for day-to-day activities, supervision on GIS, statistical data analysis and compositional data analysis and overall project management. Siobhan Cox, Rory Doherty and Neil Ogle (QUB) will provide an advisory panel at QUB with experience in chemical analysis, urban environmental management and soil science. Dr Gareth Norton (UoA) will provide expertise in soil biogeochemistry, specifically the geochemical cycling of key elements like arsenic, cadmium and molybdenum.

Partner organisations: Geological Survey Northern Ireland (GSNI) and British Geological Survey (BGS) Scotland will provide urban geochemical data, stakeholder engagement and expertise in urban soil geochemistry and how to communicate a scientific message to translate research into evidence-based policy communications. Dr Damian Fogarty, Renal Consultant, Belfast Health Trust, Belfast, Northern Ireland will provide additional expertise. The student will become a member of the International Association of Mathematical Geoscience ; the CODA Association, and Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health Through these international associations the student will have the opportunity to participate in training workshops (e.g. CoDawork) and conferences (annual IAMG and SEGH conferences). Application will be made to the IAMG student Affairs committee for student travel and research grants for funding to attend additional conferences and for additional resources.

The project will focus on two urban settings Belfast and Glasgow. BGS Geochemical Baseline Survey of the Environment (G-BASE) soil geochemistry data are available for Glasgow. The G-BASE soil sampling of Greater Glasgow includes 1,381 urban soil samples. An urban geochemical database for Belfast was generated as part of the Tellus Survey. The database consists of 1164 soil samples collected across the greater Belfast urban area and analysed for 58 elements with XRF elemental analysis. Both urban datasets were collected on a systematic grid at a density of 4 per km2 which did not avoid areas of human influence.

This research uses data from the UK Renal Registry which collects data on all patients with advanced CKD on dialysis or with a kidney transplant (RRT) across the UK and reports data by age group on primary renal disease, including Chronic Kidney Disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu).  First supervisor McKinley has existing ethics approval to use UKRR for NI, with a further application to the UKRR discussed with Dr Fogarty for access to UKKR data for the Glasgow area. UKRR data are provided in age brackets, 16-39, 40-64 and 65+, all ages >16 and for uncertain aetiology (CKDu) between 2006 and 2016. Social deprivation will be measured using Multiple Deprivation Measures provided by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

Funding and eligibility information available here.


Jennifer McKinley

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Jennifer McKinley
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Gareth Norton

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Gareth Norton
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Rory Doherty

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Rory Doherty
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Siobhan Cox

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Siobhan Cox
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment


  1. McIlwaine, R., Doherty, R., Cox S. & Cox, M., 2017. The relationship between historical development and potentially toxic element concentrations in urban soils. Environmental Pollution Vol. 220, Part B, Pages 1036-1049
  2. Morrison, S., Fordyce. F.M., Scott, M., (2014) An initial assessment of spatial relationships between respiratory cases, soil metal content, air quality and deprivation indicators in Glasgow, Scotland, UK: relevance to the environmental justice agenda. Environ Geochem Health. 36:319-332 DOI 10.1007/s10653-013-9565-4
  3. McKinley, J.M, Mueller, U., Atkinson, P.M., Ofterdinger, U., Cox, S F., Doherty, R., Fogarty, D., Egozcue, J.J., Pawlowsky-Glahn, V. (2020) Chronic kidney disease of unknown origin is associated with social deprivation and environmental urbanisation in Belfast, UK., Environ Geochem Health.

Research Methods

Field methods: Close partnership with GSNI and BGS will provide the student with the opportunity to understand the implementation a field sampling Programme.

Laboratory methods: There is the potential for local urban field sampling on identified areas such as corresponding to road networks but this is not a requirement for the project.

Computing methods: The main research analyses will involve mapping, spatial statistical regression analysis and compositional data analysis. Initial mapping and integration of databases can be carried out using GIS software packages (ArcGIS/QGIS). Spatial statistical analysis, regression and compositional data analysis will be carried using programming language using libraries in R, including the R packages compositions and selbal.

Expected Training Provision

Data sets such as geochemical survey data are compositional in nature in that they convey relative information. As a result, correlations between raw geochemical compositional data are spurious, prone to artefacts and potentially unrelated to any natural processes. Compositional data analysis (CoDA) methods are frequently used to extract information from geochemical data by treating log ratio or equivalently transformed data instead of analysing the raw constant sum values. Through the IAMG and CODA the student will participate in training workshops (e.g. CoDawork) and IAMG short courses. The student will receive training in soil survey field work through engagement with GSNI and BGS. At Queens University and through QUADRAT, they will attend training courses in GIS (ArcGIS, QGIS), statistical programming (R) and paper writing.


Academic impact
The research carried out by the student will produce new understanding of the use of soils as proxies for air and traffic pollution and the interactions between air pollution and health through the UKRR data. The research will also develop new approaches in spatial statistics and applied compositional data analysis for exploring the associations between the environment and health.

Impact on land management
The research would provide increased understanding into exposure pathways, spatial dependence, environment and social economic demographics. The outcomes of the project will include the development of an urban landuse risk assessment which incorporates information from urban soil geochemistry, air quality data and historical industrial legacy information. Stakeholder engagement will assist to translate the findings into evidence-based policy communications.

Impact on environmental policy
This research is important to gain a greater understanding of the link between human health and environmental toxins from anthropogenic sources including air pollution and traffic. The spatial approach suggested for the research provides a framework for investigating the importance of multi-element interactions of both essential and potentially toxic trace elements in understanding the environmental clusters of disease.

Proposed Supervision

The student would be based largely in the School of Natural and Built Environment (SNBE, QUB), with additional time spent at University of Aberdeen with contact with GSNI and BGS Scotland. At QUB, the student will be provided with desk space, computing equipment and other necessary resources for the project. SNBE has currently 120 PhD students with dedicated PGR support for administrative activities, pastoral care and training.

Jenny McKinley (QUB) will be the primary supervisor, responsible for day-to-day activities, soil science and ecosystem service aspects and overall project management. She will provide the student with regular PhD supervisory meetings and support for coordinating administrative and computing requirements. Jenny McKinley has supervised 29 PhD students and is Director of the Centre for GIS and Geomatics. As such the student will have access GIS customised training and teaching, scientific survey, GI data analytics and modelling. Dr Rory Doherty will provide expertise in chemistry, identification and apportionment of PTEs. Dr Siobhan Cox will provide expertise in risk assessment of contaminated sites (including human health risk assessment, the use of bioaccessibility testing and differentiating between geogenic and anthropogenic sources of contamination. Dr Norton has undertaken extensive research in the accumulation and distribution of elements and their impact on human health. Full supervision meetings with UoA will be monthly, with additional regular meetings with full Stakeholder supervisory team.


  • biodiversity
  • earth-systems
  • environmental-management


Nin-CASE collaborative partners: Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) & British Geological Society (BGS)

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