Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are substances that are difficult to break down. Their longevity and high fat solubility lead to accumulation in humans, animals and the environment. In addition, POPs have the potential for long-range transport via air and water and can therefore be found worldwide. POPs exhibit high toxicity and can promote the development of cancer and disrupt the immune system. They used to be 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, and are released during many other anthropogenic activities. Environmental contamination by POPs often results in wide-ranging investigations of feed and food and possible health effects. In the past four years, two projects on the monitoring of POPs in different matrices have been carried out by the Agency for Health and Food Safety in cooperation with the Federal Environmental Agency on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection and the Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology.
Aim and implementation
In the first 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, suspected contaminated areas and contaminated sites were identified with regard to possible environmental contamination by POPs in Austria. 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 contaminated sites in Austria", regions for emission-based monitoring were identified in rough scenarios 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 the 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 developed in a workshop with the country representatives.
Scenario 1 was located in the waste management sector. Air (deposition), soil and animal foodstuffs were investigated at this site.
The soil investigations showed that elevated soil concentrations for polychlorinated dioxins, furans and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCDD/F and dl-PCB) and non-dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (ndl-PCB) were possible near the industrial areas. In general, in most cases there was a decrease in pollutant concentrations with the distance of the possible input sources. The measured deposition concentrations documented a continuous input of the pollutants into the environment near the industrial areas. Especially higher values for PCBs are noticeable, which correspond to the measured soil concentrations.
Among the flame retardants of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), decabromodiphenyl ether (BDE 209) dominated, but substitutes such as decabromodiphenylethane, dechlorane plus, or hexabromobenzene were also detected in almost all soil and deposition samples.
It should be noted that the soil analyses were one-time measurements and the deposition was measured over a period of only four months. Therefore, further measurements would be useful to corroborate the results and narrow the exposure.
Samples of locally produced, mainly animal foodstuffs 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. PBDEs, such as BDE 153 and BDE 126, were found at low levels in nine out of fifteen food samples. Currently, no maximum levels for PBDEs in food have been established. Hexabromocyclododecanes, which were in use as flame retardants in polystyrene until 2016, could not be detected in the food samples. According to the current state of knowledge, no risk to public health can be derived from the above-mentioned POPs.
Scenario 2 dealt with contamination with perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). Groundwater, drinking water, drinking water, surface water and animal foodstuffs were investigated at this site. In some cases, elevated PFAS levels were detected in the various water samples, whereby the selected samples were one-time measurements and were obtained at different sampling times. The substances perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorobutanesulfonic acid, perfluorohexanesulfonic acid, perfluoropentanesulfonic acid, perfluoroheptanoic acid, perfluorohexanesulfonic acid, perfluoropentanoic acid were detectable in almost every water sample. The parameter value of 0.10 µg/l of the EU Drinking Water Directive for the sum of 20 PFAS was exceeded by four drinking water samples. Assuming that the population exclusively consumes this drinking water, a health risk for the population could not be excluded. The contaminated drinking water wells were taken off the grid.
The locally produced food was analyzed for PFAS, PCDD/F, dl-PCB, ndl-PCB and chlorine pesticides. The samples complied with the regulatory maximum levels for PCDD/F, dl-PCB, ndl-PCB, and chlorine pesticides. PFASs were also measured in the locally produced foodstuffs; currently, no maximum levels have been set here. No risk to the population could be derived from them. A clarification of findings for groundwater and drinking water and a clarification of the cause and contamination pathways was proposed here as a follow-up project.
In a further chapter, the relevant legal matters, responsibilities and information obligations in the areas along the food chain were presented. The contamination case of hexachlorobenzene in the Görtschitztal valley in Carinthia in 2014 and the groundwater contamination of Ohlsdorf in Upper Austria in 2014 were presented as examples of experiences in the field of risk communication and crisis management. With reference to PFAS, the case of Rastatt in Baden-Württemberg 2013 (Germany) is described.
Building on these experiences, it is recommended to make appropriate arrangements to be able to deploy a coordination body more quickly in an emergency or crisis. This coordination body 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 clarification, remediation and prevention of further contamination, which may otherwise remain undetected and thereby contaminate the environment, animals and humans with harmful substances.