Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemicals that degrade very slowly in the environment. These pollutants can enter the human body via food or drinking water. As part of the project "POPMON - Identification of relevant persistent organic pollutants and potentially contaminated regions as a basis for risk-based food monitoring in Austria", industrial and waste treatment sites were investigated with regard to a possible risk of environmental contamination by these substances. The information obtained serves as a basis for food or drinking water monitoring. POPMON I was carried out from 2017 to 2018 and POPMON II from 2019 to 2021.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are difficult to degrade and accumulate in the environment due to their longevity. Releases of persistent organic pollutants from point sources (e.g., incinerators) can severely impact the environment. POPs, because of their lipophilicity, can be found primarily in high-fat foods and thus accumulate in the food chain. 90% of the total exposure to POPs results from food consumption. In humans, these substances can have various health effects on hormonal balance, the nervous system, and various organs such as the liver and kidneys. POPs can also cause cancer, allergies and hypersensitivities, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, and reproductive and immune system disorders. In the past, persistent organic pollutants were widely used in agriculture and industry, but today their use is banned or limited to specific exemptions. However, POPs are also produced unintentionally, especially during combustion processes. To protect human health and the environment, POPs are regulated under the Stockholm Convention (United Nations, 2001). This was incorporated into European law with the EU POPs Regulation 2019/1021.
In the POPMON I project, suspected sites and contaminated sites were identified and analyzed with regard to a possible environmental contamination risk from persistent organic pollutants in Austria. The aim was to derive, among other things, from these data and on the basis of information on occurrence, exposure and toxicology, technically sound proposals for priority actions in food control with regard to POPs. This serves for the early detection of possible contaminated regions in order to be able to take timely measures for risk minimization.
In the follow-up project "POPMON II - Risk communication and risk-based monitoring of persistent organic pollutants in various environmental matrices, feed and food at potentially polluted sites in Austria", possible regions for emission-based monitoring were identified in the first phase and then two scenarios were characterized and elaborated in more detail. In the second phase, samples of various relevant matrices were taken at these two sites and analyzed and evaluated for selected POPs. Planning and implementation were carried out in coordination with the relevant country representatives. Conspicuous results were already communicated to the relevant state authorities during the project. Finally, further recommendations and measures were discussed with the country representatives in a workshop.
In the course of the hazard assessment of 300 historically contaminated sites, contamination by persistent organic pollutants was classified as significant at 38 contaminated sites when evaluated by type, intensity and extent of contamination. 14 of these contaminated sites are considered to be secured or remediated. The majority of these are sites contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Some sites are contaminated with polychlorinated dibenzo-para-dioxins and dibenzofurans or chlorine chemicals. Beyond that, no other POPs have been detected to a relevant extent at contaminated sites to date. For the evaluation of contaminated sites, the chemical industry and the production of organic basic materials and chemicals were selected, since there is an increased probability of contamination of the subsoil due to persistent organic pollutants that have been little or not yet investigated.
In the POPMON II project, one scenario dealt with the investigation of brominated flame retardants at the industrial sites of Amstetten and Kematen an der Ybbs in Lower Austria, where shredding plants for recycling cars and electrical appliances are located. The investigations of deposits and soil showed that elevated concentrations of the POPs PCDD/F and dl-PCBs as well as ndl-PCBs are possible in the vicinity of the Amstetten industrial site. In general, in most cases a decrease of the pollutant concentrations with increasing distance from possible input sources was observed. Among the measured flame retardants, BDE 209 dominated, but also substitutes such as DBDPE, DP or HBB were detected in almost all soil and deposition samples. Samples of locally produced, predominantly animal foods, such as milk, cheese, chicken eggs, beef, lamb and pork, bacon, honey and pumpkin seed oil, were taken within a radius of up to 10 km around the industrial areas. The available samples complied with the legal maximum levels for PCDD/F, dl-PCB, ndl-PCB and chlorine pesticides. The tolerable weekly intake level for PCDD/F and dl-PCB is exceeded 1.6-fold by consumption of beef, milk and lamb only in children. PBDEs, such as BDE 153 and BDE 126, could be found at low levels in nine out of fifteen food samples. Currently, no maximum levels for PBDEs in food have been established. According to the current state of knowledge, no risk can be derived from the above POPs for the health of the population, but the intake of PCDD/Fs and dl-PCBs in children should be reduced.
The second scenario dealt with the investigation of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in the Lebring/Leibnitz area in Styria. Twenty-two PFAS were analyzed. Groundwater, leachate of a contaminated site, a surface water (fire pond), drinking water, drinking water, blood of farm animals and animal foodstuffs were investigated. In addition, locally produced food was analyzed for PCDD/F, dl-PCB and ndl-PCB. In the various water samples, the results showed elevated PFAS levels in some cases, although the samples selected in these investigations were one-time measurements and were obtained at different sampling times. The substances PFBS, PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFPeS, PFHpA, PFHxA, PFHxS, PFPeA were determinable in almost every water sample. Eight samples of drinking water from different wells in Lebring and Leibnitz and one net sample each from Lebring and Leibnitz were taken and analyzed for 22 PFAS. PFBA, PFHxA, PFHpA, PFOA, PFBS, PFHxS and PFOS were detected in all samples. The parameter value of 0.10 µg/l of the EU Drinking Water Directive was exceeded by four samples from Lebring. Assuming that the population consumed drinking water exclusively from these wells or from this network sample from Lebring, a health risk due to persistent organic pollutants could not be excluded.
Based on the results of the investigation, the Province of Styria ordered the blocking of the wells most heavily contaminated with PFAS and set up a project to clarify the causes. Due to the measures taken by the Province of Styria, the PFAS concentration of the net sample is already below the parameter value of the European Drinking Water Directive of 100 ng/l again. The samples of locally produced food complied with the legal maximum levels for PCDD/F, dl-PCB, ndl-PCB and chlorine pesticides. PFASs were also measured in the locally produced foods; currently, no maximum levels have been set for these. Elevated concentrations were found in beef, pork, and carp. These samples were also the most highly contaminated with PCDD/Fs and PCBs. In the calculated PFAS intake levels via locally produced food and drinking water, the tolerable weekly intake level is exceeded by a factor of 3 to 4.5, with the contribution of drinking water to intake being around 60%. Therefore, a risk to public health from PFAS could not be excluded.
The calculations for a possible health risk from persistent organic pollutants were carried out in each scenario under the assumption that the population feeds exclusively on the foods from the respective region investigated in the project. Intake via other food categories was not considered. However, these foods may also contribute to POPs intake.
In one part of the project, elevated concentrations of dioxins, PCBs and flame retardants were measured in Amstetten and Kematen an der Ybbs. The levels measured in foodstuffs were able to comply with the legal maximum levels for dioxins and PCBs. The concentrations of flame retardants were low. In the second part of the project, elevated concentrations of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) were detected in groundwater, surface water, drinking water and drinking water in Lebring and Leibnitz. PFASs were also found in animal foodstuffs. A risk to the population through consumption of the drinking water could not be ruled out. As a measure, therefore, the closure of the most heavily contaminated drinking water wells was initiated by the state.
Based on the experience gained from the project, it is recommended as a measure to make appropriate arrangements to be able to deploy a coordination unit more quickly in an emergency or crisis. This coordination office is also of great advantage for crisis communication in order to provide information in a coordinated, competent and uniform manner and to prevent loss of confidence among the public. It is also recommended that environmental information relevant to food safety be collected in a structured manner and exchanged on a mandatory basis. Food-relevant environmental monitoring should be continued or extended in order to be able to identify causes of contamination at an early stage. This is essential for the detection, remediation and prevention of further contamination, which may otherwise remain undetected and thereby contaminate the environment, animals and humans with harmful substances.
Benefit of the project
The benefit lies in risk minimization by reducing the exposure of the population to persistent organic pollutants. Environmental and food monitoring will be used to identify causes of contamination at an early stage. This is an essential contribution to the detection, remediation and prevention of further contamination that would otherwise go undetected, thereby exposing the environment, animals and humans to pollutants.
The lists of potentially contaminated sites and regions in Austria compiled in the POPMON projects serve as a basis for planning and targeted implementation of annual risk-based food monitoring. The project also showed that findings from drinking water testing can provide an indication of contamination of locally produced food. Results from drinking water investigations should therefore be incorporated more strongly into the planning of food monitoring in the future.
Project acronym: POPMON (I & II)
Project management AGES: Elke Rauscher-Gabernig
Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection
Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology
Federal Environmental Agency
Province of Lower Austria
Province of Styria
Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection (BMSGPK)
Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (BMK)
06/2017 to 12/2018 (POPMON I)
06/2019 to 06/2021 (POPMON II)
Steinwider J., Hauzenberger I., Plichta V., Rauscher-Gabernig E., 2021. project POPMON - Recommendations for crisis coordination, communication and for a monitoring and laboratory strategy, ALVA-Mitteilungen, Heft 9, 43-47, ISSN 1811-7317.
Rauscher-Gabernig E., Hauzenberger I., Plichta V. and Steinwider J., 2021. Project POPMON - Risk-based monitoring of persistent organic pollutants in different environmental matrices, feed and food at potentially contaminated sites in Austria. Proceedings ALVA Annual Conference 04-05.10.2021, Wieselburg, Austria, 274-277, ISSN 1606-612X.
Last updated: 31.08.2023