Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Suspect Screening Reveals Point Source-Specific Patterns of Emerging and Novel Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in German and Chinese Rivers


Only a few dozens of the several thousand existing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are monitored using conventional target analysis. This study employed suspect screening to examine patterns of emerging and novel PFAS in German and Chinese river water affected by industrial point sources. In total, 86 PFAS were (tentatively) identified and grouped into 18 structure categories. Homologue patterns revealed distinct differences between fluoropolymer production sites of the two countries. In the Chinese Xiaoqing River Basin, the C8 homologue was the most prevalent compound of the emerging series of chlorinated perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (Cl-PFCAs) and perfluoroalkylether carboxylic acids (PFECAs). In contrast, C6 and shorter homologues were dominant in the German Alz River. This indicates that the phaseout of long-chain compounds in Europe and their ongoing production in Asian countries also apply to unregulated emerging PFAS classes. Additional characteristics to differentiate the point sources were the peak area ratio of perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) versus the emerging compound hydro-substituted PFBS (H-PFBS) as well as the occurrence of byproducts of the sulfonated tetrafluoroethylene-based polymer Nafion. The large number of identified unregulated PFAS underlines the importance of a grouping approach on a regulatory level, whereas the revealed contamination patterns can be used to estimate, prioritize, and minimize contributions of specific sources.
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