Aerobic and anaerobic biodegradation of six priority PCBs was investigated in continuous stirred tank reactors fed with naturally contaminated sewage sludge. Anaerobic and aerobic abiotic losses were higher for the lightly chlorinated PCBs but remained for all PCBs below 20%. Under strict methanogenic conditions, PCB removals were about 40% whatever PCB molecular weight or their degree of chlorination. However, considering abiotic losses, the heaviest PCBs were more efficiently anaerobically biodegraded probably because of higher dechlorination rates. The aerating sludge process enhanced removal of the lightest chlorinated PCBs from 40% up to 100%, while removal rates of the heaviest PCBs remained around 40%. Although the mesophilic aerobic process exhibits better removal efficiencies because of operating conditions, the results suggest that PCB biodegradation was strongly limited by their bioavailability in naturally contaminated sludge, under both redox conditions. Indeed, since PCB removal was closely linked to the solid reduction rates, PCB bioavailability was likely the limiting factor for biodegradation. As a consequence, the raw PCB concentrations (in mg kg–1dry weight) which are concerned by legislative procedures did not decrease sufficiently in both processes to reach a limit value fulfilling the current French/European regulation about PCB contents in sewage sludge before spreading on agricultural land.
Keywords: bioavailability - biodegradation - bioprocesses - PCB - sewage sludge - xenobiotics