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Study Examines Efficiency of Medicine Removal from Wastewater Treatment Plants

Knauss 2019 huang

Anne McElroy, Professor and Associate Dean for Research in Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), led a study that examined the effectiveness of different advanced treatment technologies used at seven wastewater treatment plants in the Eastern US. Co-led by Professor Diana Aga from the University at Buffalo, the full team included Associate Professors Howard Sirotkin and Bruce Brownawell from SBU and three PhD students, Luisa Angeles and Rachel Mullen from UB, and Irvin Huang from SBU. The study, funded by New York Sea Grant, was recently published as the cover story in the journal Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology. Angeles was the first author, Mullen is now a postdoctoral fellow at Regeneron in Albany, and Irvin Huang is about to begin a National Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship in Washington, DC.

UB chemistry professor Diana Aga (right) and UB chemistry PhD candidate Luisa Angeles in the lab. To study pharmaceuticals in wastewater, they use the system pictured to isolate chemical compounds from the wastewater. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki
UB chemistry professor Diana Aga (right) and UB chemistry PhD candidate Luisa Angeles in the lab. To study pharmaceuticals in wastewater, they use the system pictured to isolate chemical compounds from the wastewater. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“The number of pharmaceutically-active ingredients (API) and their known or suspected active metabolites released into surface waters is large and increasing,” said McElroy. “We need to better understand potential effects and the best ways to limit their release.”

The research highlighted the effectiveness of two treatment methods: granular activated carbon and ozonation. These techniques provided the highest level of removal of the pharmaceuticals tested, including a number of antidepressants and antibiotics, reducing effluent concentrations by more than 95% according to the scientists’ analysis.

The findings are important because any drugs discharged from treatment plants enter the environment, where they may contribute to phenomena such as antibiotic resistance, or be accumulated by wildlife. The research also demonstrated that while removal rates varied by treatment, concentrations of APIs discharged were generally very low. No changes in larval zebrafish behavior were observed after exposure to wastewater effluent extracts from any of the treatment plants studied, regardless of the mix of advanced treatment methods employed.

A large portion of Irvin's dissertation research took place in the lab (seen in inset). Irvin, an advanced graduate student at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, uses molecular biology to understand the impacts of pollutants on fish health and survival. He is also pictured in SBU’s zebrafish facility. The zebrafish is a model species that can offer clues to the developmental and behavioral effects of sublethal exposure to pharmaceuticals found in wastewater effluent. Credit: Irvin Huang.
Irvin Huang, an advanced graduate student in SBU’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, uses molecular biology to understand the impacts of pollutants on fish health and survival. A large portion of his dissertation research took place in the lab (seen in inset). He is also pictured in SBU’s zebrafish facility. The zebrafish is a model species that can offer clues to the developmental and behavioral effects of sublethal exposure to pharmaceuticals found in wastewater effluent. Credit: Irvin Huang.

“Our research adds to a growing body of work showing that advanced treatment methods, including ozonation and activated carbon, can be very effective at removing persistent pharmaceuticals from wastewater,” said McElroy.

Although this project showed no short-term behavioral effects associated with environmentally realistic levels of these drugs were found, longer term chronic effects should still be evaluated.

For more information on how to address unwanted medicines and personal care products, visit the New York Sea Grant website. You can also help protect New York’s waterways by participating in Drug Take Back Day.

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