The fate and effects of sewage-derived pharmaceuticals in soil
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
The behaviour and impact of pharmaceuticals in the environment are still poorly understood. Pharmaceuticals are widely used and continually released into the environment causing increasing concerns about their impact on the environment beyond the intended human or veterinary use. Prescribed pharmaceuticals, typically, enter the environment either through excretion after human use or disposal of surplus medication. Sewage treatment plants do not completely remove pharmaceuticals and their metabolites and these have been detected in sewage treatment plant effluent and receiving waters. Land application of treated sewage effluent is widely practiced in New Zealand as an alternative to surface water discharge. Methods were developed to determine selected pharmaceuticals in environmental matrices such as sewage effluent, sewage solids, soil, and soil water. From these, pharmaceutical removal efficiencies were determined for three common sewage treatment processes; activated sludge, composting and land application of sewage effluent. The impacts of some common pharmaceuticals on soil microbial communities, together with the effect of prolonged exposure to sewage effluent on these communities were examined. Additionally, toxicity of sewage effluent, and toxicity mechanisms of specific pharmaceuticals were investigated using luminescent micro-organisms and lettuce seedlings. Pharmaceuticals were successfully detected in sewage effluent, sewage solids, compost, soil and soil water. The sewage treatment processes investigated, including land application, were able to remove or reduce pharmaceutical concentrations in sewage. In case of land application, volcanic soils were more efficient than sandy soils in pharmaceutical removal while irrigation rate and level of sewage pre-treatment also showed some effect on removal efficiency. Pharmaceuticals were not acutely toxic at environmental levels currently detected. Exposure of microbial communities to unnaturally high levels of pharmaceuticals did demonstrate that most pharmaceuticals were potentially able to induce stress in the microbial community although microbes were able to metabolise some of these pharmaceuticals. Twelve years of effluent irrigation resulted in microbial adaptation to aspirin, acetaminophen and tetracycline, indicating that these pharmaceuticals had an effect on microbial community. Presently, land application of treated sewage waste may be a suitable treatment for additional pharmaceutical removal provided that land application schemes are designed appropriately, and pharmaceutical accumulation in the soil is occasionally monitored. It would be prudent to recognise the potential risk that could be caused by chronic exposure to pharmaceuticals such that continued vigilance may lead to future indications of chronic effects at an early stage.