Joint Research Centre - European Commission

The European Commission's in-house science service
European Commission

The Aqua Alta Oceanographic Tower, 16 km off-shore from Venice, where marine water samples were taken.

The Aqua Alta Oceanographic Tower, 16 km off-shore from Venice, where marine water samples were taken. © EU, 2013

New method to analyse chemical contaminants in marine waters


The JRC presented its new multi-compound method developed for the analysis of polar organic chemical contaminants in marine water samples in a recently published article in the Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry journal.

Polar – i.e. the molecules' electric charges are unequally distributed – organic contaminants from urban or industrial wastewater discharges, agricultural and industrial activities, human settlements, tourism, resource use and infrastructural development are discharged by rivers, cities or ships into the oceans. These contaminants can change the chemical composition of the ocean's waters, have adverse toxicological effects on aquatic organisms and provoke loss of habitat and biodiversity. Laboratory and field studies have shown that certain combinations of chemicals can, upon contact with aquatic life, result in observable detrimental effects even if, individually, these chemicals are present at levels below which any adverse effects can be detected (mixture toxicity).

To develop its new multi-compound analytical method, the JRC analysed marine water samples from the open Adriatic Sea taken 16 km offshore from Venice in Italy. Trace analyses in the sub nanogram per litre (ng/L) range performed with the latest generation instrument for these type of measurements led to very high precision results (around 100 times higher than old generation instruments).

Most of the chemicals detected were found for the first time in the surface waters of the northern Adriatic Sea and were mainly pesticides, pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, benzotriazoles (corrosion inhibitors), sucralose and perfluorinated surfactants. Higher concentrations were detected during summer months due to tourism activities.

Implementing the European Water and Marine Strategy Framework Directives

The European Water Framework Directive requires that Member States implement measures to reduce pollution from priority substances, including polar organic contaminants, and that they monitor these in inland and coastal surface waters. However, data on the occurrence of polar organic contaminants as well as the knowledge of the fate, pollution effects and thresholds of toxic chemical mixtures in the marine environment are relatively scarce. The new multi-compound method will help implement the Water Framework Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive and should be completed by biological tissue analysis of fish and shellfish, and trend analysis in open marine waters to ensure that there are no upward trends for persistent pollutants in the environment.


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