This study has shown that microorganisms can adapt to degrade mixtures of aromatic pollutants at relatively high rates in the μg/l concentration range. The biodegradation rates of the following compounds were investigated in biofilm systems: aromatic hydrocarbons, phenol, methylphenols, chlorophenols, nitrophenol, chlorobenzenes and aromatic nitrogen-, sulphur- or oxygen-containing heterocyclic compounds (NSO-compounds). Furthermore, a comparison with degradation rates observed for easily degradable organics is also presented. At concentrations below 20-100 μg/l the degradation of the aromatic compounds was typically controlled by first order kinetics. The first-order surface removal rate constants were surprisingly similar, ranging from 2 to 4 m/d. It appears that NSO-compounds inhibit the degradation of aromatic hydrocarbons, even at very low concentrations of NSO-compounds. Under nitrate-reducing conditions, toluene was easily biodegraded. The xylenes and ethylbenzene were degraded cometabolically if toluene was used as a primary carbon source; their removal was influenced by competitive inhibition with toluene. These interaction phenomena are discussed in this paper and a kinetic model taking into account cometabolism and competitive inhibition is proposed.

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