Sorption of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to low and high density polyethylene (PE)

Elke Fries, Christiane Zarfl
Environmental Science and Pollution Research International 2012, 19 (4): 1296-304

BACKGROUND, AIM, AND SCOPE: According to their high sorption capacity polyethylene (PE) passive samplers are often used for the analysis of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the aquatic environment. PE is also one of the primary synthetic polymers found in oceans, and sorption of PAHs to marine PE debris may determine PAH exposure and therefore hazards in marine ecosystems. Thus, an understanding of the sorption process is of great importance. In the present study, the sorption of several PAHs with different polarities to low density polyethylene (LDPE) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) was studied in order to improve our understanding of the influence of material properties on the Fickian diffusion of PAHs into PE.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: Batch sorption experiments were performed with aqueous solutions containing acenaphthylene, acenaphthene, fluorene, phenanthrene, anthracene, fluoranthene, and LPDE or HDPE pellets. Samples were shaken in the dark at 20 ± 1°C for 16 time intervals within one week. Concentrations of PAHs were determined in the aqueous samples using solid-phase microextraction coupled with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The distribution coefficients (K (PE)) between PE and water were estimated from different models reported in the literature. Kinetic sorption of the PAHs into the plastic pellets was described by a diffusion model based on Fick's second law in spherical coordinates.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: A comparison between different models describing the equilibrium distribution of PAHs between PE and water revealed that the sorption equilibrium seemed to be driven by parameters other than, or in addition to, organic carbon. For both plastic types, diffusion coefficients decreased while the molecular weight of the PAHs increased which indicates a hindered diffusion through the matrix as a result of a larger molecule size. Higher diffusion coefficients were derived for LPDE than for HDPE indicating a greater sorption velocity for LPDE according to the lower polymer density.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results revealed that equilibrium time could be shortened during passive sampling as polymer membranes of lower density are used. In some areas, marine ecosystems may not be in equilibrium with respect to concentrations of organic contaminants and abundance of marine plastic debris. In such cases, different polymer densities should be taken into account in risk assessments.

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