Concentrations of organic contaminants in industrial and municipal bioresources recycled in agriculture in the UK

Hannah Rigby, Alan Dowding, Alwyn Fernandes, David Humphries, Natalia R. Jones, Iain Lake, Rupert G. Petch, Christopher K. Reynolds, Martin Rose, Stephen R. Smith

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Many types of bioresource materials are beneficially recycled in agriculture for soil improvement and as alternative bedding materials for livestock, but they also potentially transfer contaminants into plant and animal foods. Representative types of industrial and municipal bioresources were selected to assess the extent of organic chemical contamination, including: (i) land applied materials: treated sewage sludge (biosolids), meat and bone meal ash (MBMA), poultry litter ash (PLA), paper sludge ash (PSA) and compost-like-output (CLO), and (ii) bedding materials: recycled waste wood (RWW), dried paper sludge (DPS), paper sludge ash (PSA) and shredded cardboard. The materials generally contained lower concentrations of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins/dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs) and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) relative to earlier reports, indicating the decline in environmental emissions of these established contaminants. However, concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) remain elevated in biosolids samples from urban catchments. Polybrominated dibenzo-p dioxins/dibenzofurans (PBDD/Fs) were present in larger amounts in biosolids and CLO compared to their chlorinated counterparts and hence are of potentially greater significance in contemporary materials. The presence of non ortho polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in DPS was probably due to non-legacy sources of PCBs in paper production. Flame retardent chemicals were one of the most significant and extensive groups of contaminants found in the bioresource materials. Decabromodiphenylether (deca-BDE) was the most abundant polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) and may explain the formation and high concentrations of PBDD/Fs detected. Emerging flame retardant compounds, including: decabromodiphenylethane (DBDPE) and organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs), were also detected in several of the materials. The profile of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) depended on the type of waste category; perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnDA) was the most significant PFAS for DPS, whereas perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was dominant in biosolids and CLO. The concentrations of polychlorinated alkanes (PCAs) and di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) were generally much larger than the other contaminants measured, indicating that there are major anthropogenic sources of these potentially hazardous chemicals entering the environment. The study results suggest that continued vigilance is required to control emissions and sources of these contaminants to support the beneficial use of secondary bioresource materials.

Original languageEnglish
Article number142787
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date7 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2021


  • Ash
  • Biosolids
  • Compost-like-output
  • Flame retardents
  • Livestock bedding
  • Persistent organic pollutants
  • Waste

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