Early detection of organic micropollutants in aquatic ecosystems

Last changed: 18 January 2024
Sunset over a lake. Photo.

The increasing worldwide contamination of aquatic ecosystems with thousands of man-made organic micropollutants is one of the key environmental problems facing humanity today. This project aimed to improve the detection methods of organic micropollutants. New analysing strategy was used to produce a list of prioritised pollutants for which control measures are urgently needed.

Every year approximately 300 million tons of man-made organic organic chemicals are used in production of industrial and consumer products. Large amounts of organic micropollutants (OMPs) continuously reach natural waters, primarily through industrial activities and municipal and industrial wastewater effluents. In nature, OMPs can alter ecosystem functioning, reduce biodiversity, and constrain ecosystem services.

Detection methods used in environmental assessment measure only a small fraction of the released OMPs and the actual number of OMPs in natural waters remains unknown. Likely the ones detected constitute only the tip of an iceberg, and therefore OMPs effect on ecosystems and human health is unknown.

The project focused on Lake Mälaren, which is the largest drinking water reservoir and the third largest lake in Sweden. Water, wastewater effluents, sediment, and biota (e.g. mussels) was screened for OMPs. The sampling was conducted in close collaboration with the Lake Mälaren's Water Conservation Association (Mälarens vattenvårdsförbund).

After sampling and sample enrichment, an already-established workflow was used, including high-resolution mass spectrometry, data processing based on e.g. blank subtraction and retention time, and prioritisation based on databases and suspect screening. A good prioritisation strategy was a key part since the output from the mass spectrometry could, for a single sample, include thousands of signals, all of which could represent an OMP. This project benefited from Swedish Chemicals Agency's (KemI) product register, a unique database for the use of chemicals in Sweden.

Finally, the identified OMPs were characterised by their persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity (PBT) potential, and their environmental fate in the ecosystem (i.e. water, sediment, biota). Ultimately, this project produced a list of prioritised pollutants for which control measures are urgently needed. The knowledge gained from this project improves the protection of the aquatic ecosystem and reduces their exposure to toxic OMPs.

The results are presented:

Dürig, W., Alygizakis, N.A., Wiberg, K., Ahrens, L., (2022). Application of a novel prioritisation strategy using non-target screening for evaluation of temporal trends (1969–2017) of contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in archived lynx muscle tissue samples. Science of The Total Environment, 817, 153035.

Dürig, W., Alygizakis, N.A., Menger, F., Golovko, O., Wiberg, K., Ahrens, L., (2022). Novel prioritisation strategies for evaluation of temporal trends in archived white-tailed sea eagle muscle tissue in non-target screening. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 424, 127331.

Lundqvist, J., Mandava, G., Lungu-Mitea, S., Lai, F.Y., Ahrens, L., (2019). In vitro bioanalytical evaluation of removal efficiency for bioactive chemicals in Swedish wastewater treatment plants. Scientific Reports, 9, 7166.



The project is funded by the Oscar and Lili Lamm Memorial Foundation.