From: Richard Harth, Arizona State University
Published January 16, 2014 04:17 PM

Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CECs) identified in sewage sludge

Thousands of chemicals serving a variety of human needs flood into sewage treatment plants once their use life has ended. Many belong to a class of chemicals known as CECs (for chemicals of emerging concern), which may pose risks to both human and environmental health.


Arjun Venkatesan and Rolf Halden of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute have been tracking many of these chemicals outlining a new approach to the identification of potentially harmful, mass-produced chemicals, describing the accumulation in sludge of 123 distinct CECs.

Ten of the 11 chemicals found in greatest abundance in treated municipal sludge or biosolids were high-production volume chemicals, including flame-retardants, antimicrobials and surfactants.

The study shows a strong overlap between chemicals found in biological samples taken from the human population and those detected in municipal biosolids. These findings suggest that analysis of sludge may provide a useful surrogate for the assessment of human exposure and bioaccumulation of potentially hazardous substances.

According to Venkatesan, "presence of CECs in sewage suggests that consumers already may get exposed to these chemicals prior to their discharge into sewage, suggesting a need for human biomonitoring and risk assessment of these priority chemicals."

Prioritizing the thousands of CECs and predicting their behavior has been a daunting challenge. Evaluation is costly, tedious and time-consuming. Further, as the new study emphasizes, laboratory modeling of chemical behavior, including rates of environmental breakdown and potential for bioaccumulation often deviate significantly from real-world scenarios. 

Conventional chemical screening evaluates the persistence, bioaccumulation and potential toxicity of various chemicals. The method however suffers from two shortcomings: the production rates of chemicals in current use are not incorporated into analysis and the detailed behavior of these chemicals in real-world biological systems—including the human body—is not assessed.

In the current study, a repository of samples from U.S. wastewater treatment plants, created and maintained by the team was used to conveniently identify CECs, as well as evaluate their potential for bioaccumulation and their ability to withstand degradation processes. The working hypothesis proposes that such treatment plants may act as reliable gauges for monitoring chemical prevalence and bioaccumulation potential relevant to human society and the environment.

Specifically, chemicals managing to survive primary and secondary treatment in municipal sewage systems display notable resistance to aerobic and anaerobic digestion processes and are therefore more likely to stubbornly persist in the environment upon their release.

Read more at Arizona State University.

Schematic image via BioDesign Institute of Arizona State University.

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