Chemical characterization and ecotoxicity of three soil foaming agents used in mechanized tunneling

Posted by
Emilio Benfenati
on 12 09 2019

The construction of tunnels and rocks with mechanized drills produces several tons of rocky debris that are today recycled as construction material or as soil replacement for covering rocky areas. The lack of accurate information about the environmental impact of these excavated rocks and foaming agents added during the excavation process has aroused increasing concern for ecosystems and human health. The present study proposes an integrated approach to the assessment of the potential environmental impact of three foaming agents containing different anionic surfactants and other polymers currently on the market and used in tunnel boring machines. The strategy includes chemical characterization with high resolution mass spectrometry techniques to identify the components of each product, the use of in silico tools to perform a similarity comparison among these compounds and some pollutants already listed in regulatory frameworks to identify possible threshold concentrations of contamination, and the application of a battery of ecotoxicological assays to investigate the impact of each foaming mixture on model organisms of soil (higher plants and Eisenia andrei) and water communities (Daphnia magna). The study identified eleven compounds not listed on the material safety data sheets for which we have identified possible concentrations of contamination based on existing regulatory references. The bioassays allowed us to determine the no effect concentrations (NOAECs) of the three mixtures, which were subsequently used as threshold concentration for the product in its entirety. The technical mixtures used in this study have a different degree of toxicity and the predicted environmental concentrations based on the conditions of use are lower than the NOAEC for soils but higher than the NOAEC for water, posing a potential risk to the waters due to the levels of foaming agents in the muck.

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