Pharmaceutical Residues in Sewage Treatment Works and their Fate in the Receiving Environment
Published:27 Aug 2015
Pharmaceuticals are increasingly used in large amounts in human (and veterinary) medicine around the world. They reach the aquatic environment mainly through sewage treatment systems and can reach μg l−1 levels. The continual input of pharmaceuticals to the aquatic environment, via sewage, can also impart a persistent quality to compounds that otherwise possess no inherent environmental stability. While the literature contains increasing numbers of studies detailing fate, effects and behaviour in the environment, the subject is still not fully understood for all the different therapeutic classes. The toxicological significance for non-target (especially aquatic) organisms is poorly understood. The use/release of antibiotics and natural/synthetic steroids to the environment has generated most of the concern to date, but a plethora of other drugs are increasingly attracting attention, as their biological activity alone may support ecotoxicity assessments of those compounds with high production volumes (or toxicity), especially in view of the increasing importance of freshwater resources. Pharmaceuticals display a variety of removal efficiencies during wastewater treatment and their fate and behaviour are not determined by their physicochemical properties alone. Despite the fact that many drugs have high sorption potentials, partitioning to the solid phase was determined to be an unlikely removal pathway for the majority of compounds. The partitioning behaviour of these compounds both in sewage treatment and the aquatic environment is likely to be dictated by a number of physicochemical parameters. Findings also indicate that the costs of using tertiary treatment options (mainly based on drinking water treatment) to remove drugs from wastewater effluent are likely to be prohibitively expensive, and potentially undesirable, due sustainability implications. While adjusting existing treatment parameters may increase the removal efficiencies of pharmaceuticals, any changes to sewage treatment parameters would need to be offset against the economic and environmental costs. Likewise, any regulations on drug use must be balanced against health benefits. If receiving waters are used for potable supplies, the presence of these compounds may (although it is unlikely) represent a potential hazard to human health, especially in areas without advanced water treatment. The focus for future research should therefore be on proper and sufficient science for establishing the occurrence, exposure and effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment, so that sound decisions can be made regarding human and ecological health.