Transport and Fate of Organic Compounds in the Global Environment


  • Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Ballschmiter

    Corresponding author
    1. Analytische Chemie und Umweltchemie der Universität Albert-Einstein-Allee 11, W-7900 Ulm (FRG)
    • Analytische Chemie und Umweltchemie der Universität Albert-Einstein-Allee 11, W-7900 Ulm (FRG)
    Search for more papers by this author

  • Dedicated to Professor Heinz Harnisch on the occasion of his 65th birthday


The role of chemistry in our soon-to-be global industrial society requires a global perspective for the discussion of the uptake, transport, and conversion of chemical compounds in the environment. The fate of organic compounds in the volume flow of the atmosphere and hydrosphere can be categorized into transport pathways and adjustments of equilibria in the multiphase system atmosphere-oceans-land surface. The global volume flow in the atmosphere (wind, areas of high and low pressure) and in the hydrosphere (rivers, circulation of water in lakes, ocean currents) alone would account for the transport of organic compounds if they were stable and if all these compounds were molecularly distributed in these phases. However, this particular case is observed only for volatile chlorofluorocarbons and tetrachloromethane. For most organic compounds, complex adsorption/desorption processes on finely dispersed particle phases in the air and water as well as abiotic and biotic transformations determine the transport behavior.

The global fate of a compound includes its accumulation as well as its decomposition in defined environmental compartments. Both phenomenon may have long-term consequences in the af-fected areas; this is indicated by the accumulation of polychlorobiphenyls and analogous compounds in marine mammals and deep-sea fauna, and is evident in the decomposition of chlorofluorocarbons in the stratosphere. The accepted definition of the level of a risk, the product of the probability of an event and the potential amount of damage, takes on a new dimension when viewed from a global perspective-especially when one further connects the extent of the damage to the possible means of correction. It is the responsibility of scientists to point out the irreparable regional to global consequences directly and indirectly connected to the production of chemicals and to provide suggestions for prevention. Politicians can only react by applying their methods to limit the damage; however, they cannot generate any solutions based on science.