Leaky Sewers Contaminating Streams With Substantial Amounts of Medications

Dirty Sewer Tunnel Pipe

Thousands of medications approved for human use in the U.S. are harmful to microorganisms, algae, and insects when they enter lakes and streams through wastewater.

Pharmaceutical compounds can harm the environment. However, in waterways that don’t receive treated wastewater, these pollutants aren’t expected to be present. Now, researchers reporting in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology have found that amounts of some medications carried by a stream in Baltimore were substantial, despite generally low concentrations over the course of a year. Because wastewater plants don’t impact this stream, the high loads are likely coming from leaking sewer pipes, they say.

Thousands of medications are approved for human use in the U.S., and many of them are harmful to microorganisms, algae and insects when they make their way into lakes and streams through wastewater. The concentrations of pharmaceutical compounds are usually used to determine their impact on organisms living in streams and rivers. However, contaminant concentrations may change quickly from one day to the next, and so singular snapshots do not correctly illustrate their cumulative effects on aquatic life. Instead, load — the mass of a pollutant that passes through a stream or river over time — better represents the risks to downstream environments, where the contaminants end up. While loads are used in regulations for traditional pollutants, such as nutrients, they have not been considered for pharmaceuticals. So, Megan Fork and colleagues wanted to get an idea of the yearly load of medicines transported by an urban stream in Baltimore.

The researchers tested water from an urban stream draining into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in Maryland on a weekly basis for a year. At the outflow point, they found 16 pharmaceutical compounds whose presence and amount varied considerably from week to week, ranging from concentrations of parts per trillion to parts per billion. Trimethoprim — an antibiotic — was found most regularly, but acetaminophen — a common pain reliever — was at the highest concentrations. The team used their weekly measurements to estimate annual loads of pharmaceuticals, calculating that the equivalent of 30,000 doses of antidepressants, 1,700 doses of antibiotics and 30,000 tablets of acetaminophen entered the Inner Harbor through the stream. Interestingly, this watershed did not receive wastewater treatment plant effluent, so it’s likely these compounds are coming from leaky sewer pipes. Improvements to aging infrastructure could reduce this source of harmful compounds to urban streams and other waterways, the researchers say.

For more on this story, see Dosing the Coast: Leaky Sewer Pipes Are Medicating the Chesapeake Bay.

Reference: “Dosing the coast: Leaking sewage infrastructure delivers large annual doses and dynamic 2 mixtures of pharmaceuticals to urban rivers” by Megan L. Fork, Jerker B. Fick, Alexander J. Reisinger and Emma J. Rosi, 18 August 2021, Environmental Science & Technology.
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c00379

The authors acknowledge funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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