Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 20, Issue 10, pp 6934–6971 | Cite as

Solution by dilution?—A review on the pollution status of the Yangtze River

  • Tilman Floehr
  • Hongxia Xiao
  • Björn Scholz-Starke
  • Lingling Wu
  • Junli Hou
  • Daqiang Yin
  • Xiaowei Zhang
  • Rong Ji
  • Xingzhong Yuan
  • Richard Ottermanns
  • Martina Roß-Nickoll
  • Andreas Schäffer
  • Henner HollertEmail author
Processes and Environmental Quality in the Yangtze River System


The Yangtze River has been a source of life and prosperity for the Chinese people for centuries and is a habitat for a remarkable variety of aquatic species. But the river suffers from huge amounts of urban sewage, agricultural effluents, and industrial wastewater as well as ship navigation wastes along its course. With respect to the vast amounts of water and sediments discharged by the Yangtze River, it is reasonable to ask whether the pollution problem may be solved by simple dilution. This article reviews the past two decades of published research on organic pollutants in the Yangtze River and several adjacent water bodies connected to the main stream, according to a holistic approach. Organic pollutant levels and potential effects of water and sediments on wildlife and humans, measured in vitro, in vivo, and in situ, were critically reviewed. The contamination with organic pollutants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins/polychlorinated dibenzofurans, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), and others, of water and sediment along the river was described. Especially Wuhan section and the Yangtze Estuary exhibited stronger pollution than other sections. Bioassays, displaying predominantly the endpoints mutagenicity and endocrine disruption, applied at sediments, drinking water, and surface water indicated a potential health risk in several areas. Aquatic organisms exhibited detectable concentrations of toxic compounds like PCBs, OCPs, PBDEs, and PFCs. Genotoxic effects could also be assessed in situ in fish. To summarize, it can be stated that dilution reduces the ecotoxicological risk in the Yangtze River, but does not eliminate it. Keeping in mind an approximately 14 times greater water discharge compared to the major European river Rhine, the absolute pollution mass transfer of the Yangtze River is of severe concern for the environmental quality of its estuary and the East China Sea. Based on the review, further research needs have been identified.


Yangtze River Ecotoxicity Triad approach Organic pollutants Bioassay Mutagenicity Fish 



Our review has been carried out as part of the MICROTOX project (“Transformation, Bioaccumulation and Toxicity of Organic Micropollutants in the Yangtze Three Gorges Reservoir”), which is integrated into the joint environmental research program “Yangtze—Hydro-Sustainable Management of the Newly Created Ecosystem at the Three Gorges Dam” (Bergmann et al. 2012; The project has been financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Germany (BMBF) as part of the research cluster “Pollutants/Water/Sediment—Impacts of Transformation and Transportation Processes on the Yangtze Water Quality.” The review was also supported by a personal grant to Hongxia Xiao by the scholarship program of the Chinese Scholarship Council. The authors want to express their gratitude for the great and helpful effort that was put into the manuscript by the two anonymous reviewers.

Supplementary material

11356_2013_1666_MOESM1_ESM.docx (195 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 195 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tilman Floehr
    • 1
  • Hongxia Xiao
    • 1
  • Björn Scholz-Starke
    • 1
  • Lingling Wu
    • 2
  • Junli Hou
    • 3
  • Daqiang Yin
    • 2
  • Xiaowei Zhang
    • 4
  • Rong Ji
    • 4
  • Xingzhong Yuan
    • 5
  • Richard Ottermanns
    • 1
  • Martina Roß-Nickoll
    • 1
  • Andreas Schäffer
    • 1
    • 4
  • Henner Hollert
    • 1
    • 5
    Email author
  1. 1.Institute for Environmental ResearchRWTH Aachen UniversityAachenGermany
  2. 2.Key Laboratory of Yangtze River Water Environment, Ministry of EducationTongji UniversityShanghaiPeople’s Republic of China
  3. 3.East China Sea Fisheries Research InstituteShanghaiPeople’s Republic of China
  4. 4.State Key Laboratory of Pollution Control and Research Reuse, School of the EnvironmentNanjing UniversityNanjingPeople’s Republic of China
  5. 5.College of Resources and Environmental ScienceChongqing UniversityChongqingPeople’s Republic of China

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