Halogen abundances in chondrites are 6 to 37 times lower than previously reported, which is consistent with the low abundances of these elements found in Earth.
Volatile element delivery and retention played a fundamental part in Earth's formation and subsequent chemical differentiation. The heavy halogens—chlorine (Cl), bromine (Br) and iodine (I)—are key tracers of accretionary processes owing to their high volatility and incompatibility, but have low abundances in most geological and planetary materials. However, noble gas proxy isotopes produced during neutron irradiation provide a high-sensitivity tool for the determination of heavy halogen abundances. Using such isotopes, here we show that Cl, Br and I abundances in carbonaceous, enstatite, Rumuruti and primitive ordinary chondrites are about 6 times, 9 times and 15-37 times lower, respectively, than previously reported and usually accepted estimates1. This is independent of the oxidation state or petrological type of the chondrites. The ratios Br/Cl and I/Cl in all studied chondrites show a limited range, indistinguishable from bulk silicate Earth estimates. Our results demonstrate that the halogen depletion of bulk silicate Earth relative to primitive meteorites is consistent with the depletion of lithophile elements of similar volatility. These results for carbonaceous chondrites reveal that late accretion, constrained to a maximum of 0.5 ± 0.2 per cent of Earth's silicate mass2,3,4,5, cannot solely account for present-day terrestrial halogen inventories6,7. It is estimated that 80-90 per cent of heavy halogens are concentrated in Earth's surface reservoirs7,8 and have not undergone the extreme early loss observed in atmosphere-forming elements9. Therefore, in addition to late-stage terrestrial accretion of halogens and mantle degassing, which has removed less than half of Earth's dissolved mantle gases10, the efficient extraction of halogen-rich fluids6 from the solid Earth during the earliest stages of terrestrial differentiation is also required to explain the presence of these heavy halogens at the surface. The hydropilic nature of halogens, whereby they track with water, supports this requirement, and is consistent with volatile-rich or water-rich late-stage terrestrial accretion5,11,12,13,14.