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FEMS Microbiol Rev. 1997 Jul;20(3-4):517-23.

Contaminated environments in the subsurface and bioremediation: organic contaminants.

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Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (EAWAG), Limnological Research Center, Kastanienbaum, Switzerland.


Due to leakages, spills, improper disposal and accidents during transport, organic compounds have become subsurface contaminants that threaten important drinking water resources. One strategy to remediate such polluted subsurface environments is to make use of the degradative capacity of bacteria. It is often sufficient to supply the subsurface with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and aerobic treatments are still dominating. However, anaerobic processes have advantages such as low biomass production and good electron acceptor availability, and they are sometimes the only possible solution. This review will focus on three important groups of environmental organic contaminants: hydrocarbons, chlorinated and nitroaromatic compounds. Whereas hydrocarbons are oxidized and completely mineralized under anaerobic conditions in the presence of electron acceptors such as nitrate, iron, sulfate and carbon dioxide, chlorinated and nitroaromatic compounds are reductively transformed. For the aerobic often persistent polychlorinated compounds, reductive dechlorination leads to harmless products or to compounds that are aerobically degradable. The nitroaromatic compounds are first reductively transformed to the corresponding amines and can subsequently be bound to the humic fraction in an aerobic process. Such new findings and developments give hope that in the near future contaminated aquifers can efficiently be remediated, a prerequisite for a sustainable use of the precious-subsurface drinking water resources.

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