New Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in the River Rhine and the North Sea

Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are industrial chemicals showing special physical and chemical properties such as water, oil, and soil repellence. Therefore, they are used in various consumer products (e.g., coatings of paper, leather and textiles), in the fluoropolymer production and in fire-fighting foams. On the other hand, they are known to be highly persistent, compose adverse health effects, to bioaccumulate in the (marine) environment and to undergo long-range transport.

As a result, the production and usage of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in the European Union was restricted by 2008 and PFOS was recently included in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). In a recent study at the GKSS Research Centre, the PFAS concentration in surface water along the River Rhine and in the Dutch North Sea was investigated. The PFAS pattern was dominated by ‘new’, short-chained PFAS which have recently been introduced as replacement compounds for the banned PFOS.

A strong concentration increase was observed at the Lower Rhine downstream of the city of Leverkusen originating from the discharge of treated wastewater. The highest concentration in this study was observed in the River Scheldt passing the city of Antwerp which is highly industrialized including PFAS producing facilities. An annual discharge of ~6-20 tons PFAS/year from the Rhine-Meuse delta into the North Sea was estimated. In an earlier study at the GKSS Research Centre, an annual discharge of ~0.8 tons from the River Elbe was estimated showing the importance of the Rhine-Meuse delta as PFAS source for the North Sea. As a result, coastal stations in the Dutch North Sea were dominated by the ‘new’ PFAS, too, while they might be transported along the coastline into the German Bight via the easterly current.

Even though these compounds are non bioaccumulative and “practically non-toxic”, they are highly persistent and might have long-term adverse health effects which are not well studied or combined effects with other PFAS or other pollutants leading to a risk potential for the aquatic environment.


Industrial area at the river "Schelde" near Antwerpen
PFAS concentration profile along the River Rhine


The paper has been published in:
Möller, A.; Ahrens, L.; Sturm, R.; Westerveld, J.; van der Wielen, F.; Ebinghaus, R.; de Voogt, P.: "Distribution and sources of polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS) in the River Rhine watershed". Environmental Pollution 2010, 158 (10), 3243-3250


Axel Möller

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