Increased Pharmaceuticals Found in Treated Effluent

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When researchers tested wastewater before and after treatment at a Milwaukee-area treatment plant, they found that two drugs — the anti-epileptic carbamazepine and antibiotic ofloxacin — came out at higher concentrations than they went in

When researchers tested wastewater before and after treatment at a Milwaukee-area treatment plant, they found that two drugs — the anti-epileptic carbamazepine and antibiotic ofloxacin — came out at higher concentrations than they went in. The study suggests the microbes that clean our water may also piece some pharmaceuticals back together.

Carbamazepine and ofloxacin on average increased by 80 percent and 120 percent, respectively, during the treatment process. Such drugs, and their metabolites (formed as part of the natural biochemical process of degrading and eliminating the compounds), get into the wastewater by people taking them and excreting them. Flushing drugs accounts for some of the levels too.

“Microbes seem to be making pharmaceuticals out of what used to be pharmaceuticals,” said lead author Benjamin Blair, who spearheaded the work as a PhD. student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Blair is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Denver.

Blair and colleagues found 48 out of 57 pharmaceuticals they were looking for at the South Shore Water Reclamation Facility in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which serves the greater Milwaukee area.

The researchers have a clue as to how this might happen: microbes.

After removing the solids from incoming wastewater, treatment plants use microbes — tiny single-celled organisms — to decompose organic matter that comes in the sewage.

Blair's best guess is that people take the drugs, their body breaks them down into different metabolites that are excreted, and the microbes take these different parts of the drug and put them back together.

“It’s a fascinating idea,” Blair said.

Tanja Rauch-Williams, principal technologist at the environmental engineering company Carollo Engineers, said it was a strong study but cautioned that this doesn’t mean wastewater treatment plants are acting as pharmaceutical factories.

Source: Environmental Health News

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