Sediment samples were taken along the West, North, and East rivers of the Pearl River system at 28 locations in 1998, and a total of 49 elements were determined by ICP-AES, ICP-MS and INAA. The probability features of the datasets were studied, and the average concentrations of these elements in sediments of the three rivers were calculated. Significant differences in element concentrations among the three rivers were observed and the results were confirmed by statistical tests including analysis of variance (ANOVA), Kruskal-Wallis test, and t-test. Spatial distribution maps of element concentrations were produced using a geographical information system (GIS). The immobile trace elements (such as Sc, Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, and Ni) are enriched in the West River where limestone dominates the rock types in the watershed. Because of the strong weathering, immobile trace elements are enriched and reside in secondary minerals of the weathering products. All three rivers have high concentrations of rare earth elements (REEs) because of strong weathering, but relatively higher concentrations of REEs are observed in sediments of the East River where granite dominates the rock type. Granite contains high concentrations of REEs and the sediments have inherited this feature from their bedrock. Alkaline element (Li, Na, K, Rb, and Cs) concentrations are elevated in sediments of the East River, these may reside in granitic primary minerals. Relatively high concentrations of alkaline earth elements (Mg, Ca, Sr, and Ba) are observed in the West River, inherited from the limestone bedrock. High Pb and Bi concentrations are found in the North River and are caused by Pb mineralization and the discharge of a smelter in the upper reaches of the river. However, statistical tests did not indicate a significant difference between Pb concentrations in the North River and the other two rivers, which suggests that statistical results should be carefully used and explained. (C) 2001 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.