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Investigations - Contaminants of Emerging Concern in the Environment

Biotransformation of Tributyltin in Freshwater River-Bed Sediment

The largest documented release of organotin compounds to a freshwater river system in the United States occurred in early 2000 in central South Carolina. The release consisted of an unknown volume of various organotin compounds such tetrabutyltin (TTBT), tributyltin (TBT), tetraoctyltin (TTOT), and trioctyl tin (TOT) and resulted in a massive fish kill and the permanent closures of a municipal wastewater treatment plant and a local city’s only drinkingwater intake. Initial sampling events in 2000 and 2001 indicated that concentrations of the ecologically toxic TTBT and TBT were each greater than 10 000 íg/kg in surfacewater bed sediments in depositional areas, such as lakes and beaver ponds downstream of the release. Bedsediment samples collected between 2001 and 2003, however, revealed a substantial decrease in bed-sediment organotin concentrations and an increase in concentrations of degradation intermediate compounds. For example, in bed sediments of a representative beaver pond located about 1.6 km downstream of the release, total organotin concentrations [the sum of TTBT, TBT, and the TBT degradation intermediates dibutyltin (DBT) and monobutyltin (MBT)] decreased from 38 670 to 298 íg/kg. In Crystal Lake, a large lake about 0.4 km downstream from the beaver pond, total organotin concentrations decreased from 28 300 to less than 5 íg/kg during the same time period. Moreover, bed-sediment inorganic tin concentrations increased from pre-release levels of less than 800 to 32 700 íg/kg during this time. These field data suggest that the released organotin compounds, such as TBT, are being transformed into inorganic tin by bed-sediment microbial processes. Microcosms were created in the laboratory that contained bed sediment from the two sites and were amended with tributyltin (as tributyltin chloride) under an ambient air headspace and sacrificially analyzed periodically for TBT, the biodegradation intermediates DBT and MBT, and tin. TBT concentrations decreased faster [half-life (t1/2) = 28 d] in the organic-rich sediments (21.5%) that characterized the beaver pond as compared to the slower ( t1/2 = 78 d) degradation rate in the sandy, organic-poor, sediments (0.43%) of Crystal Lake. Moreover, the concentration of inorganic tin increased in microcosms containing bed sediments from both locations. These field and laboratory results suggest that biotransformation of the released organotins, in particular the ecologically detrimental TBT, does occur in this fresh surface-water system impacted with high concentrations of organotin compounds.

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  • Project contact: Jim Landmeyer

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