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J Hazard Mater. 2005 Jul 15;122(3):195-204. Epub 2005 Apr 21.

Occurrence and fate of pharmaceutically active compounds in the environment, a case study: Höje River in Sweden.

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Swedish Geotechnical Institute, Department of Environmental Technology, Malmö.


Pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs) in the environment lately have been acknowledged to constitute a health risk for humans and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Human and veterinary applications are the main sources of PhACs in the environment and the major pathways are excretion and discharge to the environment through sewage treatment plants (STPs). In this study, the occurrence and fate of selected human PhACs belonging to different therapeutic classes (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, lipid regulators, anti-epileptics, antibiotics and beta-blockers) were investigated in a small river in the very south of Sweden. The objectives of the study were to evaluate the impact of a high and rather constant load in sewage influent on downstream concentrations and whether substances that are metabolized to a high degree in humans also show a low persistency in a natural aquatic environment. Water samples were collected from the influent and effluent of the STP, in a series of dammed reservoirs leading to discharge into the Höje River in Sweden, and at several locations in the river downstream of the outfall. After enrichment by solid-phase extraction, the compounds were analyzed using GC-MS (methylated derivatives) or LC-MS/MS. In addition to the targeted pharmaceuticals, GC-MS analysis of the samples revealed the presence of other sewage-related pollutants (triclosan, caffeine, flame-retardants, antioxidants) and these results where included for comparison. Removal efficiencies were calculated in the STP and found to display a wide range with numerous species surviving treatment at greater than half their influent concentrations, including diclofenac, the anti-epileptic carbamazepine, a beta-blocker (propanolol), and antibiotics trimetoprim and sulfamethoxazole. Low removals were also observed for Tris(2-chloroisopropyl)phosphate (flame retardant), BHT-aldehyde (oxidation product of BHT) and synthetic musk (HHCB). The concentrations of chloride (Cl(-)) and boron (B) were used as natural inert tracers to estimate the relative extent of dilution of PhACs measured in the effluent of the STP on concentrations measured further downstream. Based on spatial trends of concentrations (recalculated to reflect a hypothetical scenario with no dilution), ibuprofen, ketoprofen, naproxen and dicofenac were shown to be subject to significant abiotic or biotic transformations or physical sequestration in the river. The beta-blockers atenolol, metoprolol and propanolol, the antibiotics trimetoprim and sulfametoxazole, and carbamazepine demonstrated a high degree of persistence. Fluctuations in the concentration of carbamazepine and gemfibrozil were observed along the series of reservoirs and within the river and are hypothesized to be due to release of parent compound from glucuronides. Several of the investigated substances (metaprolol, propanolol and carbamazepin) that exhibit low excretion rates as parent compounds demonstrate a surprising persistence in the aquatic environment. It is concluded that pharmaceutical substances with a high metabolic rate in humans (low excretion rate) do not necessarily induce a short lifetime in aquatic environments. Results from this study emphasize the need for a broader view on the concept of persistence that accounts for loading rates, in addition to removal mechanisms (e.g., transformation, volatility and physical sequestration by solids), under a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

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