An assessment of dioxins, dibenzofurans and PCBs in the sediments of selected freshwater bodies and estuaries in South Africa
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Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a threat to the environment and human health because they are ubiquitous, resistant to degradation, can bio-accumulate in organisms and bio-magnify in food chains. They have a detrimental effect on the reproductive, nervous and immunity systems of vertebrates. An international treaty, the Stockholm Convention on POPs, came into force in 2004 and aims to limit and eventually prohibit any use and unintentional production of POPs. South Africa ratified the Convention in 2002. Those compounds currently listed by the Stockholm Convention as POPs include chlorinated pesticides such as dichlorodiphenyltrichlorethane (DDT), chlordane and dieldrin, and industry-related compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and hexachlorobenzene. Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) are also regarded as POPs but - together with some PCBs - they are the unintentional result of anthropogenic activity. This study focussed on the PCDDs, PCDFs and dioxin-like PCBs in the aquatic environment of South Africa particularly because the water resources in this country are under pressure. Despite the fact that South Africa has the sources of these compounds, little is known about the levels of these three groups of compounds. The concentration of twelve dioxin-like PCBs, seven PCDDs and ten PCDFs were determined for 22 sites selected on the grounds of their proximity to possible pollution sources. Analytical determinations included gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and a cell-based bio-assay, the H4IIE-/17C reporter gene assay. Possible sources of the observed pollution were inferred using the following statistical investigative methods: principal component and hierarchical cluster analysis. Seven of the sites had levels higher than the threshold effect concentration of Canada's sediment quality guidelines of 0.85 ngTEQ kg'1 (Toxic Equivalency Quotient). The other sites had lower levels. The highest concentration, 17.8 ng TEQ kg"1, was measured at a site in the southern Gauteng Province. Most of the PCDD/F pollution seemed to have come from combustion sources related to human activity, rather than industrial combustion. Most of the dioxin-like PCB pollution seemed to have been from commercial PCB preparations. Future research would require better characterisation of the sources in order to reduce the formation of these compounds, but also to better understand the exposure and risk scenarios, if humans are to be in close contact with these sources.