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Annegret Biegel-Engler: Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals in the environment
Published:  10 November, 2009

Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are widely used in fire fighting foams. PFCs are synthetic compounds which can be degraded or mineralized hardly at all. Once they are dispersed within the environment, these chemicals persist for a very long time. PFCs have been found ubiquitously in the environment, e.g., in arctic animals, in the deep sea, in rivers, and drinking water. The persistence in human blood and breast milk after uptake via nutrition, in contaminated drinking water or air, is of especially high concern.

The environmental dispersion of PFCs depends on their physico-chemical properties.Those chemicals which are adsorbed by organic matter will become enriched in sewage sludge or soil.Water-soluble PFCs, however, will enter surface water and become dispersed in the oceans, eventually being transported via water currents to remote areas.

Those PFCs with high soil mobility will enter groundwater easily or be washed out into surface water, possibly contaminating drinking water. The German Federal Environment Agency therefore requires that AFFF and other fire fighting foams containing PFCs only be used when absolutely necessary.Furthermore, industry is being strongly encouraged to develop PFC-free fire fighting foams as soon as possible.

About the speaker

Dr. Annegret Biegel studied biochemistry at the Martin-Luther Univerisity of Halle-Wittenberg in Halle, Germany, first as an undergraduate (1996-2202) and then as a doctoral student (2002-2006) gaining her PhD in 2006. Annegret was then employed as a Scientific Officer responsible for the biological remediation of contaminated sites at the Brandenburg University of Technology in Cottbus. In 2008 she joined the German Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) in Dessau as a Scientific Officer in the division charged with chemical and biological safety.