Ah receptor agonists in UV-exposed toluene solutions of decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE) and in soils contaminated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)

Helena Olsman, Jessika Hagberg, Georgi Kalbin, Anneli Julander, Bert van Bavel, Ake Strid, Mats Tysklind, Magnus Engwall
Environmental Science and Pollution Research International 2006, 13 (3): 161-9

GOAL, SCOPE AND BACKGROUND: The use of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) as flame retardants increases the risk for emissions of other brominated compounds, such as polybrominated dibenzodioxins (PBDDs) and dibenzofurans (PBDFs). The large homology in structure of PBDD/Fs and mechanism of toxic action, i.e. the capacity to activate the Ah receptor (AhR) pathway, compared to their well-studied chlorinated analogues, justifies a raised concern to study the environmental levels and fate of these compounds. Decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE) is the most widely used PBDE today. Studies on photolytic debromination of decaBDE in organic solvents have shown debromination of decaBDE, as well as formation of PBDFs. However, little is known about the transformation mechanisms and there are only scarce data on photoproducts and PBDE transformation in environmentally relevant matrices. In this study, mechanism-specific dioxin bioassays were used to study photolytic formation of AhR agonists in toluene solutions of decaBDE. In addition, the influence of irradiation time and UV-light wavelength on the formation was studied. PBDE congener patterns and presence of PBDD/Fs were analysed. Further, AhR agonists were analysed in agricultural soils contaminated with PBDEs. Soils were also exposed to UV-light to study changes in AhR agonist levels.

METHODS: Toluene solutions of decaBDE were irradiated using three different spectra of UV-light, simulating UV-A (320-400 nm), UV-AB (280-400 nm), and UV-ABC (250-400 nm). Additionally, decaBDE solutions were exposed to narrow wavelength intervals (10 nm bandwidth) with the central wavelengths 280, 290, 300, 310, 320, 330, 340, 350, 360 nm. AhR agonists in decaBDE solutions were analysed with two different bioassays, the chick embryo liver-cell assay for dioxins (Celcad) and the dioxin responsive, chemically activated luciferase expression assay (DR-Calux). Also, the decaBDE solutions were analysed with LRGC-LRMS to obtain PBDE congener patterns for breakdown of decaBDE, and with HRGC-HRMS, for presence of PBDD/Fs. Four soils were exposed to UV-AB light, under both dry and moist conditions. Levels of AhR agonists in soil extract fractions, before and after UV-exposure, were analysed with the DR-Calux.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Significant levels of photoproducts able to activate the AhR pathway, up to 31 ng bio-TEQ/ml, were formed in UV-exposed decaBDE solutions. The transformation yield of decaBDE into AhR agonists was estimated to be at the 0.1%-level, on a molar basis. The net formation was highly dependent on wavelength, with the sample irradiated at 330 nm showing the highest level of dioxin-like activity. No activity was detected in controls. PBDE analysis confirmed decaBDE degradation and a clear time-dependent pattern for debromination of PBDE congeners. AhR agonist effect in the recalcitrant fractions of the soils corresponded to the levels of chemically derived TEQs, based only on chlorinated dioxin-like compounds in an earlier study. It was concluded that no significant levels of other AhR agonists, e.g. PBDFs, were accumulated in the soil. UV-light caused changes in AhR-mediated activity in the more polar and less persistent fractions of the soils, but it is not known which compounds are responsible for this.

RECOMMENDATIONS AND PERSPECTIVES: The laboratory experiments in this study show that high levels of AhR agonists can be formed as photoproducts of decaBDE and it is important to elucidate if and under which conditions this might occur in nature. However, soil analysis indicates that photoproducts of PBDE do not contribute to the accumulated levels of persistent dioxin-like compounds in agricultural soil. Still, more data is needed to fully estimate the environmental importance of PBDE photolysis and occurrence of its photoproducts in other environmental compartments. Analysis with dioxin bioassays enabled us to gather information about photoproducts formed from decaBDE even though the exact identities of these compounds were not known.

CONCLUSION: Bioassays are valuable for studying environmental transformation processes like this, where chemical analysis and subsequent toxicological evaluation requires available standard compounds and information on toxicological potency. The use of bioassays allows a rapid evaluation of toxicological relevance.

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