Phthalate ester plasticizers were determined in rivers and dams of the Venda region, South Africa. Liquid-liquid extraction, column chromatographic clean-up and capillary gas chromatography were the methods used for the quantitative analyses. Levels of phthalates in water samples from the rivers and dams ranged from 0.16 mg/ℓ to 10.17 mg/ℓ and varied between 0.02 mg/kg and 0.89 mg/kg in sediments. Generally, the highest concentrations of phthalates were found as DBP and DEHP, which is consistent with their common use in plastic materials and other industrial chemicals. The phthalate levels found in the water samples were much higher than the criterion of 3 μg/ℓ phthalates recommended by the United States
Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for the protection of fish and other aquatic life, and higher than the Suggested No-Adverse Effect Levels (SNAEL) of 7.5 to 38.5 μg/ℓ for drinking water. The health risk-assessment studies on the phthalates found in the water systems suggested potential carcinogenic and other toxic effects they may pose to communities downstream which might be exposed either through drinking untreated water from the rivers, through dermal absorption or by using the freshwater sources to water their vegetable gardens. DEHP posed the highest risk potential of all the phthalates and the water use or exposure pathway that appeared to pose the highest potential health risk for carcinogenic as well as toxic effects was vegetable watering. The results for phthalates in the water samples give cause for environmental concern as people’s health downstream is at stake if rural populations use this water.