Biomass burning causes record high peaks in PCBs in the Arctic
Soils and forests in the boreal region of the northern hemisphere are recognised as having a large capacity for storing air-borne Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), such as the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Following reductions of primary emissions of various legacy POPs, there is an increasing interest and debate about the relative importance of secondary re-emissions on the atmospheric levels of POPs.
In spring of 2006, biomass-burning emissions from agricultural fires in Eastern Europe were transported to the Zeppelin station on Svalbard, where record-high levels of many air pollutants were recorded (Stohl et al., 2007). In this report from NILU it’s reported on the extremely high concentrations of PCBs that were also measured during this period. 21 out of 32 PCB congeners were enhanced by more than two standard deviations above the long-term mean concentrations.
In July 2004, about 5.8 million hectare of boreal forest burned in North America, emitting a pollution plume which reached the Zeppelin station after a travel time of 3-4 weeks (Stohl et al., 2006). Again, 12 PCB congeners were elevated above the long-term mean by more than two standard deviations, with the less chlorinated congeners being most strongly affected.
The NILU report proposes that these abnormally high concentrations were caused by biomass burning emissions. Based on enhancement ratios with carbon monoxide and known emissions factors for this species, we estimate that 130 and 66 μg PCBs were released per kilogram dry matter burned, respectively. To our knowledge, this is the first study relating atmospheric PCB enhancements with biomass burning. The strong effects on observed concentrations far away from the sources, suggest that biomass burning is an important source of PCBs for the atmosphere.