We investigated the occurrence of metal-based nanoparticles in a natural system, the river Dommel in the Netherlands. The river itself is well-studied as far as hydrology and water quality is concerned, easily accessible and contains one major wastewater treatment plant discharging onto this river. We sampled water from various locations along the river and collected samples of influent, effluent and sewage sludge from the wastewater treatment plant. The sampling campaign was carried out in June 2015 and these samples were analysed for seven elements using high-resolution inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (HR-ICP-MS), ultrafiltration with a sequence of mesh sizes and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). From the results we conclude that there are indeed nanoparticles present in the treatment plant we studied, as we found titanium and gold particles in the influent and effluent. In the river water only 10 to 20% of the mass concentration of titanium, cerium and other elements we examined is made up of free, i.e. unattached, particles with a size smaller than 20 nm or of dissolved material. The rest is attached to natural colloids or is present as individual particles or clusters of smaller particles, as it could be filtered out with 450 nm ultrafilters. We found evidence that there is no appreciable anthropogenic emission of cerium into the river, based on the geochemical relationship between cerium and lanthanum. Besides, the effluent of the treatment plant has lower concentrations of some examined elements than the surface water upstream. The treatment plant discharges much less of these elements than estimated using previous publications. However, a potential diffuse source of titanium dioxide in the form of nanoparticles or of larger particles is their use in paints and coatings, as the concentration of titanium increased considerably in the urbanised area of the river Dommel.
- Electron microscopy