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Phenols are chemicals most commonly used in the production of resins which are used in the construction, automotive and appliance industries. Phenols can also act as a disinfectant such as in household cleaning products, which can contribute these chemicals to municipal wastewater treatment facilities through household drains.

Phenols are released to the atmosphere from combustion industries (such as coal-fired power production) and to water bodies as waste discharges from industrial facilities (such as pulp and paper mills). Phenols can occur in small amounts from natural processes (the decomposition of plant matter, for example), but pollution from phenols occurs from man-made sources.

Phenols do not tend to persist or accumulate in the environment, which can help to reduce the chance of harmful effects to the environment. Pollution from phenols is still a concern especially in large quantities (from an industrial spill, for example) or if there is a constant source (like municipal waste).

A recent study indicated that levels of phenols were generally very low in Lake Simcoe and its streams.

What are phenols?

Phenols are a by-product of certain industrial activities and are used for the production of plastics, including nylon and other synthetic fibres. They can provide disinfectant properties in household cleaning products and can be found in a number of consumer products such as mouthwash. Phenols are also present in cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke (Vaughan et al., 2008). There are many more uses and sources of various types of phenols, as listed by Michalowicz and Duda (2006).

Phenols are compounds with a chemical structures composed of aromatic benzene rings with varying numbers of hydroxyl groups attached in various configurations [Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), 1999b]. These compounds are widely distributed in the environment from natural occurrences, but also occur as manufactured chemicals and industrial by-products.

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Mobility and fate of phenols in the environment

Most releases of phenols to the Canadian environment are to air and water (Environment Canada and Health Canada, 2000). Industrial combustion can release phenols to the atmosphere, usually from waste incineration (Jay and Stieglitz, 1995) and coal-fired power production (Moreira dos Santos et al., 2004). Other major sources include residential wood burning and automobile exhaust (Wallace, 2005).

Phenols break down relatively quickly in the atmosphere lasting only a few days at most and as such are only transported short distances by air (Environment Canada and Health Canada, 2000). Phenols in the atmosphere may be deposited on aquatic and terrestrial systems via precipitation. 

Anthropogenic sources of phenols to aquatic systems include waste water from manufacturing industries that produce resins, plastics, fibres, adhesives, iron, steel, aluminum, leather, rubber (EPA, 1981b) and synthetic fuel from petroleum refineries.  Most significant contributors of phenols to surface water include pulp and paper mills, wood treatment facilities and municipal sewage treatment facilities (Environment Canada and Health Canada, 2000).

Natural sources of phenols to aquatic systems may include decomposition of aquatic vegetation (Min et al., 2015) and other organic materials including animal wastes, and from the composting of food waste, however these amounts are typically very small. Phenols are highly biodegradable in surface waters, lasting only about a week, unless high levels cause toxicity to the microorganisms responsible for processing them (ASTDR, 2008).

Other major processes responsible for degradation of phenols in aquatic systems include photooxidation and oxidation (CCME, 1999b). Aquatic organisms can degrade phenol through conversion to other compounds and elimination as waste. Phenols are highly soluble, and thus sorption to sediment or suspended particulates is not important in the distribution of phenols in aquatic systems.

Phenols in soil are subject to rapid (~several days) decomposition by bacteria or other microorganisms under aerobic or anaerobic conditions, unless other soil conditions are prohibitive (ASTDR, 2008). Phenols have been detected in groundwater after a spill (Lerner et al., 2000) or when in proximity of hazardous waste (Vipulanandan et al., 1994) or landfill sites (Aziz et al., 2010; Kurata et al., 2008). Generally degradation of phenols in soils is too rapid to permit leaching of phenols to groundwater especially in soils with significant organic matter content (Dobbins et al., 1987).

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Environmental impacts

In a study by Dauble et al. (1983), the contamination of an artificial sediment by a coal-liquid consisting primarily of phenols found impairment to larvae growth and spawning of fathead minnows. Holcombe et al. (1982) noted that phenolic wastes that also contain other chemicals seem to cause more toxicity than that of pure phenol. Toxicities of various phenolic compounds are listed for some species of aquatic biota in the Canadian Water Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life (CWQG) – phenols (CCME, 1999b). Plants readily take up phenols, but they do not bioaccumulate due to high rates of decomposition during plant respiration (ATSDR, 2008).

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Phenols in the Lake Simcoe watershed

Low levels of phenols have been observed in some tributaries of the Lake Simcoe watershed, typically associated with urban runoff, as well as in Lake Simcoe near Barrie (LSRCA, 2019). Concentrations in both the lake and tributaries were 1 μg/L or less, which approximate levels typically found in Canadian surface waters (<2 μg/L; CCME, 1999b) as well as not exceeding the Provincial Water Quality Objective (PWQO) of 1 µg/L (MOEE, 1994). Samples were also collected from canal systems or other drainage routes associated with vegetable polders. One sample from a roadside ditch adjacent to a vegetable polder had a phenol concentration of 3.1 μg/L, which is greater than the PWQO.

Generally phenols were associated more with urban areas, including Newmarket, Aurora, Barrie and Orillia and also some vegetable polder sites. Pesticides can contain phenols which may be the reason for phenols in some areas, though automobile exhaust or natural background concentrations may contribute as well.

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Actions to reduce phenols in the environment

Hazardous wastes, including phenols, are generated each year in Canada as by-products of industrial activities. Phenol (which is one compound in the class of phenols) was listed in the Second Priority Substance List (CEPA, 2013) which prompted an assessment of the compound.  The assessment concluded that phenol does not enter the Canadian environment at levels that have immediate or long-term adverse effects on the environment, but that monitoring of the compound should continue should this change in the future (Environment Canada and Health Canada, 2000).

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Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2008. Toxicological profile for phenol. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

Aziz SQ, Aziz HA, Yusoff MS, Bashir MJK and Umar M. 2010. Leachate characterization in semi-aerobic and anaerobic sanitary landfills: A comparative study. J. Environ. Manage. 91: 2608-2614.

Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). 1999a. Canadian soil quality guidelines for the protection of environmental and human health: Phenol (1997). In: Canadian environmental quality guidelines. Winnipeg, Manitoba: CCME.

CCME. 1999b. Canadian water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life: Phenols – Mono and dihydric phenols. In: Canadian environmental quality guidelines. Winnipeg, Manitoba: CCME.

CEPA. 2013, June 21. Second priority substances list (PSL2). Retrieved from:

Dauble DD, Barrachlough SA, Bean R and Fallon WE. 1983. Chronic effect of coal-liquid dispersions on fathead minnows and rainbow trout. Trans. Am. Fish. Soc. 112: 712-719.

Dobbins DC, Thornton-Manning JR, Jones DD and Federle TW. 1987. Mineralization potential for phenol in subsurface soils. J. Environ. Qual. 16: 54-58.

Environment Canada and Health Canada. 2000. Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA): Priority substances list assessment report, phenol. Minister of Public Works and Government Services. 

Holcombe GW, Phipps GL and Fiandt JT. 1982. Effects of phenol, 2,4-dimethylphenol, 2,4-dichlorophenol, and pentachlorophenol on embryo, larval, and early-juvenile fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas). Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol.  11: 73-78.

Jay K and Stieglitz L. 1995. Identification and quantification of volatile organic components in emissions of waste incineration plants.  Chemosphere 30: 1249-1260.   

Kurata Y, Ono Y and Ono Y. 2008. Occurrence of phenols in leachages from municipal solid waste landfill sites in Japan. J. Mater. Cycles Waste Manage. 10: 144-152.

Lerner DN, Thornton SF, Spence MJ, Banwart SA, Bottrell SH, Higgo JJ, Mallinson HEH, Pickup RW and Williams GM. 2000. Ineffective natural attenuation of degradable organic compounds in a phenol-contaminated aquifer. Groundwater 38: 922-928.

LSRCA. 2019. Chemical pollutants in the Lake Simcoe watershed (2015). Report in preparation.

Michalowicz J and Duda W. 2006. Phenols – Sources and toxicity. Pol. J. Envrion. Stud. 16: 347-362.

Min K, Freeman C, Kang H and Choi S-U. 2015. The regulation by phenolic compounds of soil organic matter dynamics under a changing environment. BioMed Research International 2015: 1-11.

Ministry of Environment and Energy (MOEE). 1994. Water management: Policies, guidelines and provincial water quality objectives. Toronto, Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Moreira dos Santos CY, de Almeida Azevedo D and Radler de Aquino Neto F. 2004. Atmospheric distribution of organic compounds from urban areas near a coal-fired power station. Atmos. Environ. 38: 1247-1257.

Vaughan C, Stanfill SB, Polzin GM, Ashley DL and Watson CH. 2008. Automated determination of seven phenolic compounds in mainstream tobacco smoke. Nicotine Tob. Res. 10: 1261-1268.

Vipulanandan C, Wang S and Krishnan S. 1994. Biodegradation of phenol. In: DL Wise and DI Trantolo (Eds.), Remediation of hazardous waste contaminated soils. New York, New York: Marchel Dekker, Inc.

Wallace J.  2005. Phenol.  In:  JI Kroschwitz and M Howe-Grant M (Eds.), Kirk-Othmer encyclopedia of chemical toxicology, 4th ed.  New York, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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Chemical Contaminants in Lake Simcoe and its Tributaries

In 2024, a study was undertaken to investigate levels of chemical contaminants in the surface water and sediments of Lake Simcoe and its tributaries. The contaminants included in this study were chosen based on historical use within the watershed, previous research, and literature from similar areas in the Great Lakes Region. This study investigated the following contaminants: 1) petroleum hydrocarbons (or PHCs) and benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX); 2) semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); 3) phenols; 4) metals, including chromium and mercury; 5) organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), including DDT and its metabolites; 6) polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); and 7) per- and poly-fluorinated substances (PFASs).

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