Characterising the scale and significance of persistent organic pollutants in South African sediments
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Water resources in South Africa are scarce, and should therefore be protected against pollutants, also from persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are a global concern due to their ubiquitous presence, persistence and toxicity. This is emphasised by the Stockholm Convention on POPs, which aims at reducing and ultimately eliminating them. South Africa signed and ratified the treaty, and it became international law on 17 May 2004, but there is still a lack of information regarding POPs in South Africa. This study focussed on establishing the levels of POPs and other organic pollutants, which included various organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxin-like compounds (DLCs), non-dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). Sampling regions included the industrial cities – Cape Town, Richards Bay, Durban and Bloemfontein, and low-income, high density residential areas surrounding a wetland in Soweto/Lenasia and Botshabelo. Additionally, rivers flowing into neighbouring countries, rivers in the vicinity of paper and pulp producers and high altitude rivers were included. Sediment samples were firstly screened for the presence of DLCs by the H4IIE-luc bio-assay, whereafter sites eliciting quantifiable responses were selected for further chemical analysis by high resolution gas chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry (HRGC/HRMS). Of the 96 sites, only 23 had quantifiable levels of DLCs. These sites were mainly of industrial, semi-industrial or low-income residential nature. PAHs were the predominant class of compounds at most of the sites, while OCPs and PCBs were present in moderate concentrations and PBDEs in minor concentrations. The concentration of pollutants measured in South African soils and sediments were intermediate when compared to the levels measured in some European, Asian and Scandinavian countries, with the exception of a few sites where exceptionally high levels of compounds were measured. The carbon content normalized concentrations of certain compounds at some of the sites exceeded the Canadian sediment quality guidelines. The estimated cancer risk associated with dermal absorption of OCPs measured in this study was negligible when compared to the background cancer risk expected for South Africans due to life style factors. However, it was estimated that dermal exposure to PCBs, DLCs and PAHs may lead to severe increases in cancer cases, and may seriously impact on human health.