Assessing the chemical anthropocene – Development of the legacy pollution fingerprint in the North Sea during the last century


The North Sea and its coastal zones are heavily impacted by anthropogenic activities, which has resulted in significant chemical pollution ever since the beginning of the industrialization in Europe during the 19th century. In order to assess the chemical Anthropocene, natural archives, such as sediment cores, can serve as a valuable data source to reconstruct historical emission trends and to verify the effectiveness of changing environmental legislation. In this study, we investigated 90 contaminants covering inorganic and organic pollutant groups analyzed in a set of sediment cores taken in the North Seas' main sedimentation area (Skagerrak). We thereby develop a chemical pollution fingerprint that records the constant input of pollutants over time and illustrates their continued great relevance for the present. Additionally, samples were radiometrically dated and PAH and PCB levels in porewater were determined using equilibrium passive sampling. Furthermore, we elucidated the origin of lead (Pb) contamination utilizing non-traditional stable isotopic analysis. Our results reveal three main findings: 1. for all organic contaminant groups covered (PAHs, OCPs, PCBs, PBDEs and PFASs) as well as the elements lead (Pb) and titanium (Ti), determined concentrations decreased towards more recent deposited sediment. These decreasing trends could be linked to the time of introductions of restrictions and bans and therefor our results confirm, amongst possible other factors, the effectiveness of environmental legislation by revealing a successive change in contamination levels over the decades. 2. concentration trends for ΣPAH and ΣPCB measured in porewater correspond well with the ones found in sediment which suggests that this method can be a useful expansion to traditional bulk sediment analysis to determine the biologically available pollutant fraction. 3. Arsenic (As) concentrations were higher in younger sediment layers, potentially caused by emissions of corroded warfare material disposed in the study area after WW II.
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