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Organophosphate ester pollution in the oceans

Abstract

The large-scale use of organophosphate esters (OPEs) as flame retardants and plasticizers has led to their prevalence in the environment, with still unknown broader impacts. This Review describes the transport and occurrence of OPEs in marine systems and summarizes emerging evidence of their biogeochemical and ecosystem impacts. Long-range environmental transport via the atmosphere and ocean currents distributes OPEs from industrialized regions to the open ocean. OPEs are most prevalent in coastal regions, but notable concentrations are also found in the Arctic and regions far from shore. Air–water interactions are important for the transport of OPEs to remote oceans and polar regions. Processes such as degradation and sinking of particle-bound compounds modulate the properties and fate of OPEs in the water column, where they are potentially a non-accounted source of anthropogenic organic phosphorus for microbial communities. Some OPEs have toxic effects in marine species and are found in measurable quantities in fish and other aquatic organisms. However, there is conflicting evidence on the potential for bioaccumulation and biomagnification of OPEs. Future work must constrain the large-scale impact of OPEs on marine biota and biogeochemistry to support more effective regulation and mitigation.

Key points

  • Higher concentrations of organophosphate esters (OPEs) occur in coastal seas near populated and industrial areas than in the open ocean.

  • OPEs are transported to the ocean from terrestrial sources via both atmospheric transport and riverine discharge. Air–water exchange and atmospheric deposition affect the cycling of OPEs.

  • Transport via ocean currents and, potentially, biodegradation control the vertical distribution and sedimentation of OPEs.

  • Re-emission from melting snow and ice in polar regions can impact OPE levels in the High Arctic and the Southern Ocean water columns.

  • OPEs and their transformation products are emerging concerns for marine ecosystems, especially related to their presence in marine mammals and fish.

  • International strategies are needed to manage their environmental emissions.

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Fig. 1: Major sources and pathways of OPEs in coastal and open oceans.
Fig. 2: OPEs in the ocean air.
Fig. 3: OPEs in seawater.
Fig. 4: OPEs in marine sediments.
Fig. 5: OPE concentrations in organisms.
Fig. 6: BAFs of organophosphate esters in marine organisms.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are very grateful to D. Muir for his detailed and constructive internal review on the manuscript. They thank W. Cheng and R. Zhang for providing the data on OPEs in air, snow and marine organisms. They thank Q. Meng, L. Mi and J. Li for technical support in creating Figs 1–4. Z.X. acknowledges the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 689443 via project iCUPE (Integrative and Comprehensive Understanding on Polar Environments). They thank the researchers who contributed original research for OPEs in environmental and biological matrices and modelling predictions.

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Z.X. initiated the project and assembled the authorship team. P.W., X.W., C.L., J.C.-J., M.V.-C., J.D. and Z.X. researched the data and drafted the manuscript and figures. R.K., W.M. and R.L. contributed to writing and editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Zhiyong Xie.

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Xie, Z., Wang, P., Wang, X. et al. Organophosphate ester pollution in the oceans. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 309–322 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00277-w

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