wastewater treatment

Prescription for Trouble? Studying Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater.

By Marguerite Huber

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. FDA.

Approximately 1,800 drugs are approved for prescription use in the United States. Have you ever thought of what happens to all those drugs once they have left you (or your medicine cabinet)? Due to human excretion and people flushing unused pills, these pharmaceuticals can end up in the wastewater stream, presenting a challenge to the nation’s wastewater treatment plants.

To estimate potential pharmaceutical concentrations in wastewater, EPA scientists conducted a survey of wastewater effluent from 50 large U.S. municipal wastewater treatment plants between January and April 2011. They then used the data to evaluate an EPA model designed to estimate potential concentrations of active pharmaceuticals in treated wastewater.

The model generates preliminary estimates of associated risks, and provides a basis for prioritizing the pharmaceuticals that generate the greatest concern for future research efforts.

EPA scientists used pharmaceutical marketing data to choose the 56 pharmaceuticals with the highest number of minimum daily dose equivalents dispensed in the U.S. each year. You may recognize acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and hydrocortisone from the list.

The 50 wastewater treatment plants were chosen based on a number of factors, but together they produce about six billion gallons of treated wastewater a day that is released into rivers and streams. In all, these facilities serve more than 46 million people.

The researchers then analyzed treated wastewater samples from the selected plants to determine the concentrations of the 50 high-priority active pharmaceutical ingredients they identified from the marketing data.

Overall, the survey found low concentrations of pharmaceuticals present in every water sample the researchers analyzed.

Based on the screening data, the researchers estimated that risks were low for both healthy adults and aquatic life from pharmaceutical exposure in wastewater effluent for most drugs. They also found that even under the extreme scenario of someone consuming half a gallon of treated wastewater per day over the course of a year, they would get the equivalent of less than a daily dose of any pharmaceutical currently in use. For most pharmaceuticals, it would be less than one daily dose over the course of a lifetime.

Additionally, based on what the survey revealed about pharmaceuticals in wastewater effluent, the researchers determined that risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing in aquatic environments is low.

Mitchell Kostich, an EPA Scientist who worked on the study, said Agency researchers plan to now focus on the handful of pharmaceuticals that are most frequently used, and appear at levels for which risks to aquatic life cannot be ruled out. With the help of the model and additional data, they expect to be able to predict the maximum wastewater concentrations of any pharmaceutical in current use.

Interested in more about this topic? Join our Water Research Webinar: Pharmaceutical Residues in Municipal Wastewater on Wednesday, September 24th from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (EDT), and check out our previous post, A Prescription for a Healthier Environment!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Our Waters Know No Borders

By Allison Martin

On my recent visit to South Texas with our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program, I met with local residents and learned the challenges they face from failing wastewater treatment systems. One person explained how, during heavy rains, she had to wade through thigh-deep water mixed with sewage in her yard. A mother described her children’s skin and stomach problems due to contact with wastewater.  Another showed me a puddle in her yard. Her son stood a few feet away; he must have been well-instructed that this ever-present puddle above the family’s failing septic system was off limits. But as I eyed the small compound, I had a sinking sense that staying away from the puddle was not eliminating the family’s contact with the wastewater.

Many border communities are economically disadvantaged and can’t bear the financial burden to build or repair their water infrastructure. Failing systems can significantly affect the environment, spilling untreated wastewater into streets, rivers and streams. This can seriously affect community health, increasing the risk of water-borne illnesses such as cholera, typhoid, and gastro-intestinal diseases. Unfortunately, these issues are not isolated. The U.S. and Mexico share many rivers, and sewage discharged into them pollutes our shared water resources.

My trip reemphasized to me the importance of our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program. It funds the planning, design, and construction of high-priority drinking water and wastewater treatment systems in border communities. Meeting with border residents gave me a deeper appreciation for the program’s unique technical assistance component, which helps communities select the type of infrastructure that is right for them. The program also emphasizes community participation, empowering residents to get involved in the process. Most importantly, the projects funded by this program help prevent serious health and environmental problems.

To protect the health and environment of those who call the border home, we have to continue to work collaboratively to treat pollution at the source.  Our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program does just that.

About the author: Allison Martin is an ORISE participant in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Allison supports the U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program, Clean Water Indian Set-Aside Program, and Decentralized Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Career (of many) Built by the EPA STAR Program

By: David Cwiertny

I wouldn’t be the environmental engineer that I am today without the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, which funds research grants and graduate fellowships in environmental science and engineering disciplines. The research funded through this program complements EPA’s own, and that of other federal agencies, to help protect human health and the environment.

In 2004, I was entering the fourth year of my doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.  As often happens near the end of a doctorate, my funding had dried up.  Finding new support was stressful and diverted my attention from research.  The EPA STAR graduate fellowship allowed me the financial and intellectual freedom to pursue my priority: development of new technologies to treat contaminated groundwater.

In addition to funding my research, the EPA STAR program let me interact with other Fellows at the STAR conference, integrating me into a peer network of excellence.  And because the fellowship is very competitive, it helped me secure a tenure-track faculty position at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).  That job ultimately led to my current position at the University of Iowa, where the EPA STAR program remains a vital source of support as I continue to grow my research program.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

In December 2011, I was awarded an EPA STAR grant to improve small drinking water systems.  Through this particular grant, my research program is trying to develop more efficient and cost-effect treatment technologies to improve the quantity and quality of drinking water in small, rural communities, many of which often lack adequate resources for a safe and reliable water supply.  The end result will be in-home treatment units that could be of tremendous value to the number of communities, in Iowa and beyond, that rely on private groundwater wells, many of which are compromised by pollutants such as arsenic and nitrate. During my tenure as a STAR grantee, I had the privilege of mentoring an EPA STAR Fellow, Rebekah Oulton, who received the award while working in my laboratory on related work trying to improve water and wastewater treatment technologies.

At all stages of my career, the EPA STAR program has been instrumental to my development as an environmental scientist and engineer.  EPA’s support has afforded me the flexibility and continuity to pursue my research, directly addressing current environmental challenges to our nation. I’ll forever be grateful to the investment EPA has made in me, as it has allowed me to fulfill my professional dreams and aspirations, and help protect our nation’s water resources and the health of the general public that rely on them.

About the Author:

David Cwiertny is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. He is a former EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship recipient and conducts research currently funded by the EPA STAR program. At the University of Iowa, he is a member of the campus-wide Water Sustainability Initiative, developing interdisciplinary research, outreach and education programs intended to increase water awareness at the university, within Iowa, and across the United States.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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After the Flush

A decentralized wastewater treatment system – a package plant – serving an apartment building in Suffolk County, New York.

A decentralized wastewater treatment system – a package plant – serving an apartment building in Suffolk County, New York.

By Kristina Heinemann

What happens after you flush a toilet in New York City?  In most cases household sanitary waste, as well as domestic wastewater from your kitchen and laundry, travels to a central wastewater treatment plant.  But that is not always the case!  In some areas, for example in many parts of Suffolk County, New York and in less developed areas of both New York and New Jersey, domestic wastewater is treated right where it is generated. In these instances wastewater from sinks, tubs, washing machines and toilets typically flows into in a septic tank and then is distributed or dispersed to a larger area where wastewater flows under the ground and is further treated by natural chemical and biological processes within the soil. This type of wastewater treatment is referred to as decentralized wastewater treatment to distinguish from instances where wastewater flows through large sewer pipes to a centralized wastewater treatment plant.  Despite being more common in rural areas, decentralized onsite treatment can even be found in the outer boroughs of New York City and in one instance has been incorporated into the award winning design of a high rise apartment building, the Solaire* in lower Manhattan.

*The Solaire was awarded LEED® Gold Certification by the United States Green Building Council.

Precast concrete rings of the type used in residential leaching pools in Suffolk County, NY

Precast concrete rings of the type used in residential leaching pools in Suffolk County, NY

Just what is decentralized wastewater treatment?

Decentralized wastewater treatment consists of a variety of approaches for collection, treatment, and dispersal/reuse of wastewater. The systems are part of the nation’s permanent infrastructure and can be managed as stand-alone facilities or integrated with centralized sewage treatment systems. They provide a range of treatment options from simple, passive treatment with soil dispersal, commonly referred to as septic or onsite systems, to more complex and mechanized approaches, such as advanced treatment units that collect and treat waste from multiple buildings and discharge to either surface waters or the soil.

Why use decentralized wastewater treatment?

Decentralized wastewater treatment can be a smart alternative for communities considering new systems or modifying, replacing, or expanding existing wastewater treatment systems. For many communities, decentralized treatment can be:

  • Cost-effective and economical
    • Avoiding large capital costs
    • Reducing operation and maintenance costs
    • Promoting business and job opportunities
  • Green and sustainable
    • Benefiting water quality and availability
    • Using energy and land wisely
    • Responding to growth while preserving green space
  • Safe in protecting the environment, public health, and water quality
    • Protecting the community’s health
    • Reducing conventional pollutants, nutrients, and emerging contaminants
    • Mitigating contamination and health risks associated with wastewater

The bottom line is …

Decentralized wastewater treatment can be a sensible solution for communities of any size and demographic. Like any other system, decentralized systems must be properly designed, maintained, and operated to provide optimum benefits. Where they are determined to be a good fit, decentralized systems help communities reach the triple bottom line of sustainability: good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for the people.

Stay tuned for more information on how to care for a decentralized treatment system and   EPA’s Septic Smart tips. See http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/septic/septicsmart.cfm for a preview!

About the Author: Kristina works in the Clean Water Division and coordinates the Region’s decentralized wastewater treatment (also known as septic systems, onsite wastewater treatment systems) activities in New Jersey, New York and the Caribbean. She lives in Suffolk County, New York and there has had the opportunity to experience first-hand living with and maintaining an onsite wastewater treatment system. Although retirement is still a number of years away, Kristina does sometimes dream of using her golden years to create a decentralized community wastewater treatment system and septic management district in her neighborhood to further protect groundwater and surface water quality.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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High School and College Students Introduced to Waste Water Treatment in New York City

By Raymond Kvalheim

What did you do this past summer?

I know 23 students who worked in NYC wastewater treatment plants for the experience of a lifetime.
A century ago New York City had animal carcasses and garbage floating in the harbor, rivers and canals that were essentially open sewers. People were dying of cholera and diphtheria from wastewater discharges.

How times have changed! Today the New York City sewer system is an engineering marvel – an underground labyrinth of more than 6,000 miles of water mains and pipes that handles more than a billion gallons of waste every day.

During the last 10 summers nearly 200 city students have participated in the very successful Youth-in-the-Environment program.

The Youth-in-the-Environment Program in NYC is a cooperative between Bronx Community College, Woodycrest Human Development Center, Inc. and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and EPA. These agencies have contributed to the success of the program along with in-kind contributions. Each year the NYCDEP has improved and expanded their support from all the established partners by adding a variety of jobs for participation by the students. Our success can be verified by the testimonials provided by both the youth and the New York City DEP host site supervisors.

Some of the areas of interest include:

  • Working in a Pump House – Learning about warehousing, conducting inventory control, sorting supplies, storehouse operation and maintenance.
  • Working in Water Registry – Learning about customer service, cashier, processing payments, processing, validating and data entry of tap orders, engineering department office support.
  • Working in North River – Learning about warehouse, conducting inventory control, sorting supplies, storehouse operation and maintenance.
  • Working in Marine Services – Performing office support, clerical, payroll prep and data entry.

Students have gained laboratory skills in process, metals, biological, chemistry labs and research labs that reinforce STEM skills. These youth acquired exceptional skills in sample preparation, pH, temperature, conductivity analysis, sample distillation and sample evaporation.

Youth assigned to the Water Registry have assisted in: More

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Southern Hospitality Can Host Great Partnerships for Water

By Nancy Stoner

I recently visited Three Mile Creek in Mobile, Alabama to see projects involving EPA’s Mobile Bay National Estuary Program. Like all of our NEPs, Mobile Bay focuses on partnership with state and local officials, utilities, universities, environmental groups, and many others. This was apparent when our boat trip up Three Mile Creek was overbooked with local partners eager to participate.

Three Mile Creek used to be the drinking water source for many Mobile residents, but is now severely polluted from a wastewater treatment plant and stormwater. The result is muddy water and lots of trash. But restoration prospects are bright. First, the land along the waterway is undeveloped and much is owned by the city or by a church, and is managed in its natural condition as a floodplain. The sewage treatment plant is moving its discharge to a larger waterway, eliminating the largest single source of pollution. And the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is keeping the City of Mobile moving forward to reduce stormwater that carries trash from streets, parking lots, and other public areas into the waterway.

The talk on the trip was about making improvements and getting more people out to enjoy this potentially lovely amenity for residents, including those in underserved neighborhoods who are close enough to walk to the creek to fish or boat – and maybe eventually to swim.

Our second stop was at Joe’s Branch, the site of an innovative stormwater management project, paid for in part by EPA Section 319 funds, which will address one of the most severe cases of streambank erosion many of us had ever seen. The design incorporates a state-of-the-art approach – a series of step pools to slow down the flows, let the pollutants settle out and infiltrate water into the ground. It will be the first of its kind in Alabama and engineers evaluated prototypes from across the country to devise this design.

This project is another example of the economic benefits of environmental protection. Nearby retirement homes previously had beautiful views.  But now there is a 40 foot-wide chasm that fell dozens of huge trees and washed tons of sediment to Mobile Bay.  As a result, many apartments went unoccupied – in 2011 the retirement community had 100 months of unoccupied homes, costing over $300,000 in revenue.

Whether in urban Mobile or in the rural area across the Bay, partnership is making improvements possible.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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China Strives for Clean Waters with EPA

By Sasha Koo-Oshima

All over the world, developing countries are faced with the challenge of trying to grow their economies despite finite water resources. The U.S. government, including EPA, is helping countries address some of their most pressing clean water needs while trying to develop international markets for U.S. businesses that specialize in environmental technology. Last December, I traveled to China as part of a U.S. delegation to help China develop a long-term plan to maximize the country’s water resources in the face of a growing population and the potential impacts of climate change.

Our delegation included representatives from 20 U.S. companies, which consulted with Chinese government officials on a host of issues like water and energy efficiency, wastewater treatment and water reuse technologies. The impressive turnout by these companies shows a genuine interest in the growing Chinese marketplace. I’m enthusiastic that the Chinese government, which has set aside about $5.5 billion over the next eight years to develop a series of ground water-related strategies, has shown such strong interest in a growing sector of the U.S. economy.

The U.S. is already a world leader in producing advanced water technologies. According to the Department of Commerce, the U.S. environmental technology industry in 2008 generated approximately $300 billion in revenues, $43.8 billion in exports, and supported almost 1.7 million jobs. The U.S. share of foreign environmental technology markets has continued to grow and given the U.S. environmental technology industry a positive trade surplus for the past decade, and our work with the Chinese government is helping further the National Export Initiative, an effort by the federal government to expand overseas markets for U.S. businesses.

Above all, the most productive part of our meetings with the Chinese government centered around the exchange of ideas. Human capacity and knowhow, as much as any device or piece of machinery, is what’s needed to achieve any goal. I’m particularly excited about a partnership that’s developing between communities near Liangzi Lake in China and Minnesota Lake here in the U.S., where the two “sister lakes” are identifying strategies to help one another address common issues.

Business is all about relationships, and the relationship EPA is developing with China is not only helping China address some of its most pressing environmental problems, it’s enabling U.S. companies to take advantage of the growing global demand for environmental technology. And it’s all in the name of providing clean water to communities and businesses.

About the author: Sasha Koo-Oshima is the Senior International Water Policy Advisor for the EPA’s Office of Water, and has worked on China’s water quality and water resources development for nearly a decade. Sasha formerly served as the principal officer on water quality for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency and in the Scientific Secretariat of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Environmental Compliance and Enforcement in Underserved Neighborhoods

By Cynthia Giles

Far too often in this country we see minority, low-income and indigenous communities overburdened by exposure to environmental pollution. They can see, feel, and smell the air, water and chemical pollution in their neighborhoods every day. Those environmental challenges impact public health and can limit the economic possibilities of struggling communities. Addressing these issues is a top priority for EPA and environmental enforcement, the focus of my office, is one key way we are taking action to reduce pollution in communities most in need of the work we do.

Ensuring compliance with our nation’s environmental laws and taking enforcement actions against companies or individuals when they do not follow those laws is important for three reasons:1) it levels the playing field for companies and individuals that comply with the law; 2) it ensures that public health in communities does not suffer because some facilities or individuals choose not play by the rules; and 3) it offers an opportunity, through legal requirements, to install pollution controls, clean-up contaminated sites, or conduct projects to address local health and environmental issues.

For example, last December, my office reached a settlement with NEORSD, a stormwater and wastewater treatment facility serving the Cleveland area. In the settlement, NEORSD agreed to install sewer overflow pollution controls which the sewer district estimates will lead to more than 30,000 jobs in the Cleveland area and return $2.63 for every $1.00 invested. The settlement also allows the sewer district to use of green infrastructure projects to capture water. They will engage the community to decide which neighborhoods and vacant lots to revitalize and which types of projects to use, for example: rain gardens, urban croplands and permeable pavement.

Settlements like these provide real benefits to affected communities and can help turn an environmental violator into an environmental leader. As a lawyer, an advocate for justice, and a mother, I work every day to protect our children and our families from exposure to harmful pollution. Along with many other women in the federal government, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Lisa Garcia  — EPA’s lead advocate for environmental justice — and Ignacia Moreno — my counterpart at the Department of Justice, we are taking concrete steps to ensure that every American has the foundations they need for success: air that is healthy to breathe, water that is clean to drink, and land free of toxic chemicals.

About the Author: Cynthia Giles is Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Louisville Turns Over a Green Leaf

Growing up in Louisville I was accustomed to a home town with a few things that were world class: college basketball, a premier horse racing event, a great bluegrass festival, and even good bratwurst at Oktoberfest. Meanwhile, Louisville was hardly known for progressive environmental protection. In fact, Louisville was rather notorious on the water quality scene, better recognized for disaster than innovation. I grew up in the Beargrass Creek Watershed, which was permanently posted as unsafe for body contact activities because of sewer overflows. We played in the creek anyway, and in retrospect I wonder if any of those ‘stomach bugs’ we occasionally suffered were related to exposure to pathogens in untreated wastewater. I was in high school in 1977 when Kentucky Liquid Recycling dumped a toxic mix of chemicals into the sewer system effectively shutting down city-wide wastewater treatment; untreated sewage was discharged directly to the Ohio River for months while the plant and the sewer system were decontaminated. I was at the University of Louisville in 1981when Ralston Purina released hexane into the sewer system and blew up miles of streets in the downtown area, including on campus directly in front of the dorm in which I was living. I still recall being awakened by the explosion, and sitting in a dark hallway with the rest of the woman on my floor anxiously speculating about what had happened.

I’m happy to say that I can now be cautiously optimistic, a little proud even, of how Louisville is responding to their federal and state mandates to finally resolve their water quality problems. While most cities with combined and sanitary sewer overflows continue to take traditional grey infrastructure approaches by building large storage, conveyance and end-of-pipe treatment systems, Louisville is among a few notable cities who have decided to “go green”. Unlike grey technologies, green approaches provide a multitude of benefits in addition to water quality improvement. They generally are also more cost-effective over the long-term. However, because most wastewater engineers are still tentative about technologies other than pipes, pumps, filters and flocculants, green approaches still aren’t mainstream. Louisville has undertaken the necessary environmental and economic analyses, and determined that green infrastructure makes a lot more sense for the community. They have committed to spend millions of dollars on wide-spread implementation of green roofs, green streets, urban reforestation, and other elements of a comprehensive green infrastructure program. Yes, that’s lots of money, but consider that they’ve determined that these solutions will actually SAVE them millions of dollars compared to grey technologies, while providing ancillary benefits that pumps and pipes could not. Though I’m not necessarily expecting to see a vegetated roof on the twin spires of Churchill Downs the next time I visit (though how cool would that be), I do expect to see Louisville transform itself with greener streets, campuses, roofs, parks, and alleys over the next decade or so. That’s good news for Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River, and great for the Louisville community as well.

About the Author: Jenny Molloy is an aquatic biologist currently working in Washington DC as USEPA’s green infrastructure coordinator. She was raised in Louisville, Kentucky.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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