The biodegradation of surfactants in the environment

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The possible contamination of the environment by surfactants arising from the widespread use of detergent formulations has been reviewed. Two of the major surfactants in current use are the linear alkylbenzene sulphonates (LAS) and the alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APE). These pass into the sewage treatment plants where they are partially aerobically degraded and partially adsorbed to sewage sludge that is applied to land. The biodegradation of these and a range of other surfactants both in wastewater treatment plants and after discharge into natural waters and application to land resulting in sewage sludge amended soils has been considered. Although the application of sewage sludge to soil can result in surfactant levels generally in a range 0 to 3 mg kg-1, in the aerobic soil environment a surfactant can undergo further degradation so that the risk to the biota in soil is very small, with margins of safety that are often at least 100. In the case of APE, while the surfactants themselves show little toxicity their breakdown products, principally nonyl and octyl phenols adsorb readily to suspended solids and are known to exhibit oestrogen-like properties, possibly linked to a decreasing male sperm count and carcinogenic effects. While there is little serious risk to the environment from commonly used anionic surfactants, cationic surfactants are known to be much more toxic and at present there is a lack of data on the degradation of cationics and their fate in the environment. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.




Scott, M. J., & Jones, M. N. (2000). The biodegradation of surfactants in the environment. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta - Biomembranes, 1508(1–2), 235–251.

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