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Cationic polyacrylamide copolymers (PAMs): environmental half life determination in sludge-treated soil

Hennecke, Dieter, Bauer, Angela, Herrchen, Monika, Wischerhoff, Erik, Gores, Friedhelm
Environmental sciences Europe 2018 v.30 no.1 pp. 16
agricultural land, composite polymers, dewatering, half life, hydrolysis, leaching, lysimeters, mineralization, molecular weight, municipal wastewater, polyacrylamide, radioactivity, sewage sludge, topsoil, wastewater treatment
BACKGROUND: Cationic polyacrylamide copolymers (PAMs) are used for sludge dewatering in municipal waste water treatment and might enter the environment by spreading of the sludge on agricultural land. Concern has been expressed since little is known about the degradation of PAMs in soils. To obtain detailed information on the polymer’s fate in the soil compartment, the degradation of ¹⁴C-radiolabelled PAM in an outdoor lysimeter was studied. RESULTS: No plant uptake and leaching of radioactivity was observed. There was practically no vertical movement of polymer and no transformation products found at the end of the study. For the top 10 cm soil layer, a mass balance was established throughout the study. About 10% of applied radioactivity was not extractable from soil even with a matrix destructive method, and this was concluded to be bound residue. Characterization of extractable radioactivity by means of GPC-analysis showed a significant decrease of the molecular weight of the PAM with time. The decrease in molecular weight indicates a breakdown of the polymer backbone (the C–C-chain), and is assumed to be primary degradation. The total radioactivity content in the 10 cm top soil layer was quantified every 6 months over a period of 3 years. The results show a significant decrease of the total radioactivity over time and this is defined as ultimate degradation following the definition of OECD and EPA. Based on the data, a half-life time of 2.0 × 10³ days and a rate constant of 0.00035/day were calculated. With a χ² of 12.0 the results of the calculation are thus valid and reliable. The rate constant indicates a mineralization of 22.5% within a period of 2 years based on the total recovered radioactivity. This half-life time is solely based on mineralization and does not take into account the degradation of the polymer backbone, hydrolysis of the side chains, incorporation into the soil matrix, and thus is a conservative approach. CONCLUSIONS: ¹⁴C-PAM degrades very slowly in soil after land-spreading as a component of sewage sludge. Even in a very conservative evaluation which only considered the loss of radioactivity, a half-life time of 5.4 years was determined.