Atmosphere as a highway for pollutants

New analytical method developed for polyfluorinated alkyl substances

Measuring station Waldhof. © GKSS
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The atmosphere is an important global transport route for hazardous pollutants such as Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS). This has now been demonstrated by scientists of the GKSS Research Center Geesthacht in a new study. PFAS are extremely long-lived substances and accumulate worldwide in the food chain. PFAS were even detected in the blood and liver of seals and polar bears, as well as in Arctic ice cores.


The substances are used for non-stick coatings in pans, breathable outdoor textiles or impregnating sprays for upholstered furniture. In order to be able to detect the volatile PFAS agents even in the smallest amounts in the air, the Geesthacht coastal researchers have developed a new precise analytical method, which they report in the journals "Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry" and "Environmental Science and Technology".

Extremely durable and represented almost everywhere

For more than 50 years, a group of perfluorinated organic surfactants has been used in industry to make surfaces resistant to grease, water and dirt. These substances, so-called polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), are used, inter alia, in impregnating agents, fire-fighting foams and in food packaging.

Its consumer-grade property of thermal and chemical stability makes some PFAS in the environment long-lived pollutants that can accumulate in the food chain. When using PFAS, these substances can enter rivers and drinking water. The extent to which PFAS are toxic to humans has yet to be proven. display

How do PFAS get to the remote regions of our earth?

The transport of the PFAS via the water cycle does not explain the high concentration of these substances in the Arctic, as these compounds travel by water from the production site to the Arctic Ocean for decades.

GKSS scientists have now shown that the atmosphere is a crucial transport route for PFAS. At one of the measuring stations in the Hamburg metropolitan area and the rural Waldhof, the researchers from Geesthacht used their new analytical method to detect these substances in the air, but found no major differences in the measurement results between these two sites.

Brisante connections

Furthermore, the researchers discovered these long-lasting compounds even during test drives in the North and South Atlantic atmosphere. "The atmosphere looks like a major highway for PFAS, which can be transported quickly and widely along this route. This explains not only the measurement results at the two stations in Hamburg and Waldhof, but also the occurrence of the substances in the Arctic, "explains GKSS environmental chemist Christian Temme.

The explosiveness of these links has also shown that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has recently put PFAS research at the top of its agenda. To gain further insights into the transport of selected PFAS via the atmosphere and the waterway, an expedition with the research ship "Merian" from Gran Canaria to the north of Canada is currently underway with the participation of GKSS. On board a laboratory container of the Institute for Coastal Research of the GKSS. The investigations should provide new insights into the concentration of compounds in the Atlantic Ocean and in the atmosphere.

(idw - GKSS Research Center Geesthacht, 26.04.2007 - DLO)