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J Chromatogr A. 2009 Feb 13;1216(7):1174-91. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2008.12.036. Epub 2008 Dec 25.

Forensic differentiation of biogenic organic compounds from petroleum hydrocarbons in biogenic and petrogenic compounds cross-contaminated soils and sediments.

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  • 1Emergencies Science and Technology Division (ESTD), Environmental Science and Technology Centre, Environment Canada, 335 River Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


"Total petroleum hydrocarbons" (TPHs) or "petroleum hydrocarbons" (PHCs) are one of the most widespread soil pollutants in Canada, North America, and worldwide. Clean-up of PHC-contaminated soils and sediments costs the Canadian economy hundreds of million of dollars annually. Much of this activity is driven by the need to meet regulated levels of PHC in soil. These PHC values are legally required to be assessed using standard methods. The method most commonly used in Canada, specified by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), measures the total hydrocarbon concentrations in a soil by carbon range (Fraction 1: C(6)-C(10); Fraction 2: C(10)-C(16), Fraction 3: C(16)-C(34): and Fraction 4: C(34)+). Using the CCME method, all of the materials extractible by a mixture of 1:1 hexane:acetone are considered to be petroleum hydrocarbon contaminants. Many hydrocarbon compounds and other extractible materials in soil, however, may originate from non-petroleum sources. Biogenic organic compounds (BOCs) is a general term used to describe a mixture of organic compounds, including alkanes, sterols and sterones, fatty acids and fatty alcohols, and waxes and wax esters, biosynthesized by living organisms. BOCs are also produced during the early stages of diagenesis in recent aquatic sediments. BOC sources could include vascular plants, algae, bacteria and animals. Plants and algae produce BOCs as protective wax coating that are released back into the sediment at the end of their life cycle. BOCs are natural components of thriving plant communities. Many solvent-extraction methods for assessing soil hydrocarbons, however, such as the CCME method, do not differentiate PHCs from BOCs. The naturally occurring organics present in soils and wet sediments can be easily misidentified and quantified as regulated PHCs during analysis using such methods. In some cases, biogenic interferences can exceed regulatory levels, resulting in remediation of petroleum impacts that are not actually present. Consequently, reliance on these methods can trigger unnecessary and costly remediation, while also wasting valuable landfill space. Therefore, it is critically important to develop new protocols to characterize and differentiate PHCs and BOCs in contaminated sediments. In this study, a new reliable gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) method, in combination with a derivatization technique, for characterization of various biogenic compounds (including biogenic alkanes, sterols, fatty acids and fatty alcohols) and PHCs in the same sample has been developed. A multi-criteria approach has been developed to positively identify the presence of biogenic compounds in soil and sediment samples. More than thirty sediment samples were collected from city stormwater management (SWM) ponds and wetlands across Canada. In these wet sediment samples, abundant biogenic n-alkanes, thirteen biogenic sterols, nineteen fatty carboxylic acids, and fourteen fatty alcohols in a wide carbon range have been positively identified. Both PHCs and BOCs in these samples were quantitatively determined. The quantitation data will be used for assessment of the contamination sites and toxicity risks associated with the CCME Fraction 3 hydrocarbons.

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