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New Process Can Remove Pollutants from Wastewater

New method could safeguard water quality, environment, and health

by Swansea University
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Samples being placed into a centrifuge to separate sample components.
Swansea University

A research team at Swansea University have developed a new method for fast removal and detection of wastewater pollutants that come from everyday pharmaceuticals like paracetamol, ibuprofen, and aspirin, which could help minimize their impact on the environment.

The all-female team of biochemists from the university's Medical School, in collaboration with international company, Biotage, have published the research in Analytical Science Advances. The research outlines how they successfully developed a single process for separating and quantifying a wide range of different pharmaceuticals and chemicals from personal care products found in everyone's bathrooms that can end up in wastewater sludge and blood plasma. The new method will speed up our understanding of which pollutants may be released and could help reduce the negative effects they have on the wider environment.

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"Many people don't really think about what happens to these drugs once they've taken them," said first author Dr. Rachel Townsend. "Like any foodstuff, once a drug has been taken, it is excreted from the body and ends up in a wastewater treatment plant.

It was thought that pharmaceuticals were degraded during the treatment process, but research has shown this isn't the case. And of course this becomes a problem as the treated wastewater is released into water courses such as rivers and streams, while 80 percent of treated sludge is also recycled back onto agricultural land as fertilizer and potentially onto future food crops."

There have been global reports of the adverse effects of pharmaceuticals on the animal kingdom. Diclofenac, for example, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory has caused multiple species of vulture in Asia to become critically endangered, while the Indian long-billed vulture and red-headed vulture populations have decreased by 97-99 percent. The female contraceptive pill has caused the feminization of male fish, which has caused populations to decrease rapidly over two years. There are also concerns that that sludge used in agriculture could impact human health too.

Related Article: Study: How US Sewage Plants Can Remove Medicines from Wastewater

The team have pioneered one process that uses a sample preparation method, called QuEChERS, with mass spectrometric detection. Using this process, they were able to detect, extract, and quantify a range of pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products from a variety of sources, such as wastewater sludge, where previously multiple extraction methods were needed, making it more efficient in time and resources needed.

The researchers could then get a clearer picture of the factors controlling how antimicrobial resistance develops and spreads in the community, and this knowledge has the potential to help safeguard water quality, the environment, and health.

The results will now help to inform the Chemical Investigation Programme, which is a British research initiative that contributes to the European Union Directive for environmental management. With enough research and data, changes can be made to the wastewater treatment process to ensure these everyday pollutants are degraded or removed with the hope of preventing any further impact on the wider environment and ensuring human health remains unaffected.

"The newly developed method fits perfectly with our portfolio of sample preparation products," said co-author Dr. Claire Desbrow from Biotage. "Being able to clean up complex human, food, or environmental samples fast and efficiently will be of benefit to not only researchers, but also to industrial, environmental, and regulatory laboratories across the globe."

- This press release was originally published on the Swansea University website