Pharmaceuticals are slipping through processing safety nets and into our water systems. It’s a growing global problem and cause for consternation – contamination from medicines may prove to be a defining environmental issue of our time. But how can we monitor and remove drugs from our rivers, lakes and drinking water?
Our work on pharmaceuticals in wastewater started small. Spurred by warnings from both the media and scientific experts about the dangers of pharmaceuticals entering our water supplies, we initiated a student laboratory project to collect water samples from a nearby river, downstream of a wastewater treatment plant. We fully expected to find nothing – assuming any drugs would be removed during processing at the plant. Nevertheless, we conducted a few concentration steps using simple solid-phase extraction cartridges and ran some HPLC-ESI-QTOF-MS experiments. To our great surprise, tens of compounds were very easily detected. Both the number of drugs and the ease of detection struck us, so we decided to continue our research more systematically.
An extensive literature search confirmed that pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment are a global problem, but published studies on the phenomenon are patchy (Figure 1) – and the quest for solutions is ongoing. Many details remain unsolved. Which laboratory conditions can best model the elimination? Which conditions are most efficient? What solutions can be scaled up for wastewater treatment? Which solutions are economically feasible?
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