Medicine and personal care products may lead to new pollutants in waterways

Medicine and personal care products may lead to new pollutants in waterways
Pharmaceuticals and personal care products leave households through wastewater and may enter the environment after the wastewater treatment process. Credit: Abigail W. Porter/Rutgers University-New Brunswick

When you flush the toilet, you probably don't think about the traces of the medicine and personal care products in your body that are winding up in sewage treatment plants, streams, rivers, lakes, bays and the ocean.

But Rutgers scientists have found that bacteria in sewage treatment plants may be creating new contaminants that have not been evaluated for and may affect , according to a study in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

The scientists tested the ability of bacteria in sludge from a sewage treatment plant to break down two widely used : naproxen, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, and guaifenesin, an expectorant in many cough and cold medications. They also tested two common compounds in personal care products: oxybenzone, a key ingredient in many sunscreens, and methylparaben, a preservative in many cosmetics.

Bacteria that don't require oxygen to grow in the sludge broke down methylparaben, but the microbes only partially broke down the three other chemicals—and created new contaminants in the process, according to the study.

"The partial breakdown of pharmaceuticals and personal care products is important because it results in a stream of possible contaminants in waterways that may have biological effects on impacted environments," said Abigail W. Porter, corresponding author and teaching instructor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. "These contaminants and their potential risks have yet to be studied."

Medicine and personal care products may lead to new pollutants in waterways
This bacterium is a typical microorganism found in oxygen-limited sediment. Credit: Young et al., unpublished

Contaminants of emerging concern, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products, are increasingly found at low levels in surface water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. There is concern that these may have an impact on aquatic life and .

"Our findings can help us assess other widely used pharmaceutical and personal care products with similar chemical structures," said co-author Lily Young, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences. "By predicting or assessing the chemicals that might form during the breakdown process, we can identify and quantify them in the environment."

The Rutgers scientists are interested in how anaerobic microorganisms, such as bacteria that thrive in zero-oxygen conditions, break down the chemicals in pharmaceuticals and .

The team studied two bacterial communities: one in sludge from a and the other in low-oxygen subsurface sediment in a clean marine environment off Tuckerton, New Jersey. The researchers previously showed that bacteria can transform the anti-inflammatory drug naproxen.

The researchers found that the two microbial communities had different types of bacteria. But both communities transformed the four chemicals, which have very different structures, in the same way. Future research will look at sediment samples from different environmental locations to evaluate the long-term persistence of transformed chemicals.

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More information: SarahJ Wolfson et al, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products can be Transformed by Anaerobic Microbiomes in the Environment and in Waste Treatment Processes, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (2019). DOI: 10.1002/etc.4406
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Citation: Medicine and personal care products may lead to new pollutants in waterways (2019, March 21) retrieved 21 September 2019 from
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User comments

Mar 21, 2019
Well known fact in the water industry. It costs a LOT of money to remove residual pharmaceuticals from drinking water. No one does it because no one has that much money. Hardly anyone even tests for it because THAT costs a lot of money too. Its a huge conundrum, much like other contaminates in water that communities do not have the money to deal with. If they raised fees enough to deal with it your water bill would be impossible to pay. No one has a good answer how to deal with it except federal grants and loans to communities to upgrade equipment. But that isnt happening.

Mar 21, 2019
The West uses the most efficient water treatment that's still economically affordable. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, while using fewer products as in the article flush EVERYTHING into the sewers, rivers, lakes and oceans without any treatment or control.

Mar 22, 2019
When we are traveling, a Pocket Pill Organizer Box is better to protect ourselves, whether it is accidental injury, unclean food, or other chronic illnesses that require long-term medication.
The online shop has a lot of different kinds of medicine boxes, especially with reminder function, it is suitable for the elderly.

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