Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans(PCDFs) are two groups of lipophilic, persistent organic pollutants that are produced as by-products of various anthropogenic and industrial processes. Due to their relatively high toxic potencies and potential to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in organisms and through the food chain, the contemporary widespread distribution of these compounds is a concern to the health of the environment, wildlife and humans. This study determined the distribution, pathways and fate of PCDD/Fs in the coastal zone of Queensland, Australia, including the inshore marine environment of the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This ecosystem supports unique fauna and flora such as the marine herbivorous mammal dugong (Dugong dugon) and its food source, seagrass.
Elevated PCDD/Fs were present in soils and sediments along the entire Queensland coastline. Highest concentrations were found in soil from agricultural irrigation drains and in sediments near the mouths of major rivers. Elevated concentrations were associated with rural and urban types of land-use, and PCDD/Fs were present even in locations remote from anthropogenic activities. PCDD/F congener-specific analysis revealed an unusual profile in all samples, dominated by OCDD, with PCDFs present in low concentrations or below the limit of detection. Distinct HxCDD isomer patterns were observed, with the 1,2,3,7,8,9-HxCDD/1,2,3,4,6,7-HxCDD isomer pair dominating the 2,3,7,8-substituted HxCDDs. Similar congener and isomer characteristics were reported in sediments, soil and clay samples from other continents, but could not be attributed to any known source.
Possible PCDD/F sources in Queensland were assessed using segmented estuarine sediment cores, for which radiochemical chronologies were established for each depth. Variations of PCDD/F concentrations in the sediment cores over several centuries of depositional history were relatively small. Elevated PCDD levels were still present in sediment slices from the early 17th century. PCDD/F homologue profiles in sediments deposited during the last 350 years were almost identical and correlated well to the characteristic profiles observed in surface sediments and soils from the entire Queensland coastline. These results suggested the presence of an unidentified PCDD source prior to the production of commercial organochlorine products.
To investigate the formation of the unusual PCDD/F profiles, congener and isomer specific analyses were undertaken in soils, sediments and dated sediment cores. The results demonstrated that specific transformation processes in the environment have resulted in the observed PCDD profile characteristics. Dechlorination of OCDD was proposed to result in distinct 1,4-pattern characteristics (i.e. formation of isomers chlorinated in the 1,4,6,9-positions). Consequently, the environmental samples do not reflect the signatures of the original source. An alternative hypothesis to natural formation is discussed evaluating these processes and their implications for possible source contributions. This hypothesis explores the potential for the influence of anthropogenic PCDD precursors (e.g. pentachlorophenol) during the 1940s to 1990s.
Transport of PCDD/Fs from the land-based source via impacted tributary river systems, and subsequent deposition processes are proposed to result in PCDD/F accumulation in the inshore marine ecosystem. The extent of the sediment PCDD/F contamination governs the concentrations in the extensive inshore marine seagrass meadows of Queensland. Partitioning processes in the sediment-seagrass system lead to increased toxic equivalency (TEQ) in the seagrass, compared to sediment.
The relationship between contaminated inshore sediments, seagrass and dugongs were evaluated using six dugong habitat regions along the coastline. PCDD/F body burdens in dugongs are governed by sediment (and seagrass) PCDD/F concentrations in their habitat. High seagrass (and incidental sediment) ingestion rates, selective retention of toxicologically potent congeners and relatively low PCDD/F elimination capacities in dugongs are proposed to result in elevated PCDD/F concentrations and TEQ levels in adult animals. Transfer efficiencies of 4 and 27% of maternal TEQ levels to foetuses and calves (respectively) during gestation and lactation result in relatively high exposure potentials to offspring.
Compared to no-observed-adverse-effect-levels in other mammals, and based on the results of this study, a tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 10-24 pg TEQ kg-1 day-1 was estimated for dugongs. The results of the present study found that dugongs from some regions along the coastline of Queensland exceed this TDI by up to 20 fold, suggesting that these populations may be at risk from PCDD/F contamination in their habitat.
These results have important implications for the health of the environment, wildlife and humans and were used to develop a conceptual understanding of the sources, pathways and fate of dioxins in Queensland, Australia.