This paper reviews the suspended and surficial sediment fractions and their interactions with manmade organic compounds. The objective of this review is to isolate and describe those contaminant and sediment properties that contribute to the persistence of organic compounds in surface-water systems. Most persistent, nonionic organic contaminants, such as the chlorinated insecticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), are characterized by low water solubilities and high octanol-water partition coefficients. Consequently, sorptive interactions are the primary transformation processes that control their environmental behavior. For nonionic organic compounds, sorption is primarily attributed to the partitioning of an organic contaminant between a water phase and an organic phase. Partitioning processes play a central role in the uptake and release of contaminants by sediment organic matter and in the bioconcentration of contaminants by aquatic organisms.
Chemically isolated sediment fractions show that organic matter is the primary determinant of the sorptive capacity exhibited by sediment. Humic substances, as dissolved organic matter, contribute a number of functions to the processes cycling organic contaminants. They alter the rate of transformation of contaminants, enhance apparent water solubility, and increase the carrying capacity of the water column beyond the solubility limits of the contaminant. As a component of sediment particles, humic substances, through sorptive interactions, serve as vectors for the hydrodynamic transport of organic contaminants. The capabilities of the humic substances stem in part from their polyfunctional chemical composition and also from their ability to exist in solution as dissolved species, flocculated aggregates, surface coatings, and colloidal organomineral and organometal complexes.
The transport properties of manmade organic compounds have been investigated by field studies and laboratory experiments that examine the sorption of contaminants by different sediment size fractions. Field studies indicate that organic contaminants tend to sorb more to fine-grained sediment, and this correlates significantly with sediment organic matter content. Laboratory experiments have extended the field studies to a wider spectrum of natural particulates and anthropogenic compounds. Quantitation of isotherm results allows the comparison of different sediment sorbents as well as the estimation of field partition coefficients from laboratory-measured sediment and contaminant properties. Detailed analyses made on the basis of particle-size classes show that all sediment fractions need to be considered in evaluating the fate and distribution of manmade organic compounds. This conclusion is based on observations from field studies and on the variety of natural organic sorbents that demonstrate sorptive capabilities in laboratory isotherm experiments.