Wastewater

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Waste not, save a lot

By Jennie Saxe

Most people think of wastewater treatment plants as the end of the pipe: it’s where the water from our sinks, showers, toilets, and sewers ends up. They’re viewed as the place we send liquid waste from our homes and businesses. It’s even right there in the name of the place: “waste.”

These pipes deliver digester gas and natural gas to the 8 microturbines which generate power for the treatment plant on-site.

These pipes deliver digester gas and natural gas to the 8 microturbines which generate power for the treatment plant on-site.

Believe me: the York Wastewater Treatment Plant doesn’t waste anything.

I had heard about the sustainable technologies that were being put into place at this treatment plant in York, Pennsylvania, and decided I had to make the trip to see for myself. General Manager Andy Jantzer led me and a small group of my colleagues on a tour of the treatment process from the head of the plant, through some repurposed aeration basins to aid in nutrient removal, past the clarifiers and sand filters, and all the way through to the treated, disinfected outfall to Codorus Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River, which eventually drains to the Chesapeake Bay.

So far, things looked pretty standard: primary and secondary treatment, nutrient removal, and disinfection.

Then we got to the second part of the tour. That’s where we learned that there was some serious technology hiding out in a repurposed building on the site. Only the small gas conditioning units outside might have tipped you off that inside there are 8 sophisticated microturbines – which sound much like jet engines – 3 of which are powered by gas from the facility’s anaerobic digesters and 5 of which are natural gas-powered. These allow the facility to generate nearly 7,000kW on site. Without the microturbines, the plant would be wasting methane (a greenhouse gas) from its digesters and purchasing all of its electricity from the grid. EPA’s Net Zero Energy team promotes technologies like this to help water and wastewater treatment plants become more energy efficient, and potentially “net zero” energy consumers.

Ammonia and phosphorus are recovered from the treatment plant’s digester centrate to create this pelletized fertilizer.

Ammonia and phosphorus are recovered from the treatment plant’s digester centrate to create this pelletized fertilizer.

What about the centrate (liquid waste) from the digesters? Most plants recycle that back to the head of the plant, which requires not only more energy for pumping, but also additional chemicals for treatment. Not here! The digester centrate comes to the former sludge incinerator building where a special process removes phosphorus and ammonia and creates a long-lasting, slow-release, pelletized fertilizer that is being used in agriculture, on golf courses, and in other applications.

See what I mean? Nothing is wasted. By recovering resources like phosphorus and energy from wastewater, this treatment plant has joined a new breed of facilities that are extracting beneficial products from what most people consider waste. The dedicated management and staff at the York Wastewater Treatment Plant are making a difference to the communities that they serve. Pursuing sustainable technologies like the ones that York has adopted not only solve problems for today, but for tomorrow, as well.

Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and is currently a Water Policy Analyst in the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia. When not in the office, Jennie enjoys spending time tending to a vegetable garden.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Climate Leaders Collaboration

Understanding Climate Change impacts in the New England region is one thing, and actually working to improve vision, capability and capacity to confront climate change and make our communities more resilient is an even bigger challenge. It is a challenge that the New England states are focused on because the vulnerabilities we are facing are real. We have seen a 74 percent increase in extreme precipitation events between 1958 and 2011. Hurricanes and tropical storms are increasing in intensity and that is expected to continue. We saw our vulnerabilities come to life in our inland states after Tropical Storm Irene. We saw the coast get slammed after Hurricane Sandy. Fifty percent of New Englanders live in coastal counties, and depend on critical infrastructure there. With sea level rise, and increased extreme precipitation events, these areas are vulnerable to flooding and storm surge in ways that they have never been before.

More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Rethinking Wastewater

By Marguerite Huber

glass of beer

The next time you enjoy a beer you might be helping the environment.

The next time you enjoy a cold, refreshing beer or glass of wine, you might also be helping the environment. Over 40 billion gallons of wastewater are produced every day in the United States, and wineries, breweries, and other food and beverage producers are significant contributors.  For example, the brewing industry averages five or six barrels of water to produce just one barrel of beer.

But where most see only waste, others see potential resources. What we label “wastewater” can contain a wealth of compounds and microbes, some of which can be harvested.

One innovative company that has recognized this, Cambrian Innovation, is harnessing wastewater’s potential through the world’s first bioelectrically-enhanced, wastewater-to-energy systems, EcoVolt. (We first blogged about them in 2012.)

Cambrian Innovation is working with Bear Republic Brewing Company, one of the largest craft breweries in the United States. Located in California, which is suffering from severe drought, Bear Republic first began testing Cambrian’s technology to save water and reduce energy costs. Fifty percent of the brewery’s electricity and more than twenty percent of its heat needs could be generated with EcoVolt. Compared to industry averages, Bear Republic uses only three and a half barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer.

The EcoVolt bioelectric wastewater treatment system leverages a process called “electromethanogenesis,” in which electrically-active organisms convert carbon dioxide and electricity into methane, a gas used to power generators.  The methane is renewable and can provide an energy source to the facility.

Rather than being energy intensive and expensive, like traditional wastewater treatment, Cambrian’s technology generates electricity as well as cost savings.

Furthermore, the EcoVolt technology is capable of automated, remote operation, which can further decrease operating costs.

EPA first awarded Cambrian Innovation a Phase I (“proof of concept”) Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2010. Based on that work, the company then earned a Phase II contract in 2012 to develop wastewater-to-energy technology. Cambrian Innovation has also developed innovative solutions with funding from other partners, including the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With access to water sources becoming more of a challenge in many areas of the country, Cambrian’s technology can help change how we look at wastewater. It doesn’t have to be waste! Wastewater can instead be an asset, but only as long as we keep pushing its potential. That can make enjoying a cold glass of your favorite beverage even easier to enjoy!

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Addressing Crucial Water Issues in Our Communities

This year, we here at EPA celebrate the 20th anniversary of President Clinton signing Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to address environmental disparities in minority and low-income communities. We’ve certainly accomplished a lot since the order was signed, but sadly, too many people still breathe dirty air, live near toxic waste dumps, or lack reliable access to clean water. But we continue to make progress in all of those areas, and here in EPA’s Office of Water, I’m proud of how we’re helping communities across America—both rural and urban—address their most crucial water issues.

Last fall, I was in Laredo, Texas and visited a community near the U.S.-Mexico border called the colonias, which until recently did not have regular access to clean water. Thanks to funding from EPA’s U.S.-Mexico Border Infrastructure Program, 3,700 people in the colonias now have access to a modern sewer system. We also have a program that provides funding for the planning, design and construction of wastewater infrastructure for American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. Providing access to clean water to people who have never had it before is one of the most important things we have the power and resources to do.

More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Water Justice and the Grand Cal

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work

 

Not far from Chicago’s South Side Altgeld Gardens, where Hazel and Cheryl Johnson helped birth and nurture the critical work of environmental justice, meanders the Grand Calumet River.

The two branches of the Grand Cal come together to flow out through the Indiana Harbor Canal into Lake Michigan. These waterways are home for some of the heaviest industrial legacy pollutants in the country. Neighborhoods that line the river experience some of the toughest blight of any urban area. Some 90 percent of the river’s flow comes from municipal and industrial effluent, cooling and process water, and stormwater overflows.

More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Motivation Meets Innovation in the Name of Water Conservation

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts the state has ever seen—so smart water use matters more than ever before. Earlier this month, I visited Southern California to get a firsthand look at some of the largest and most successful efforts to reuse and recycle water in the country.

Nancy_OC

From left to right: Jim Colson, Environmental Compliance Manager, Orange County Sanitation District; Nancy Stoner, Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water; Benita Best-Wong, Director of EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds; Mike Wehner, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Water District; and Dr. Robert Ghirelli, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Sanitation District. Photo credit: Jason Dadakis, Orange County Water District

 

One of the facilities I visited was the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System, which puts highly treated wastewater collected from the county’s sewer system—and that would otherwise be discharged into the Pacific Ocean—to beneficial use in the county’s water supply. Finding innovative ways for municipalities and businesses to use water is a priority for EPA. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Waste to Value: EPA’s Role in Advancing Science and Business

Electrogenic bioreactor containing "Bactobots" and wastewater.

Electrogenic bioreactor containing “Bactobots” and wastewater.

By Marguerite Huber

In case you missed it in the news, a New-York-based micro-robotics firm, Tauriga, acquired Cincinnati-based Pilus Energy last month. In the business world, acquisitions and mergers happen all the time, but I bet you are wondering what makes this one significant to the EPA?

Tauriga CEO, Seth M. Shaw describes Pilus Energy’s technology as “extraordinary.” What makes it so is that Pilus Energy operates with the goal of turning waste into value, turning sewage into electricity to power approximately 275 million homes a year!

Their innovative technology claims to transform dirty, wastewater into electricity, as well as clean water, and other valuable biogases and chemicals. The secret to this venture is the help of genetically enhanced bacteria, given the more affectionate name of “Bactobots.”

“Essentially we are mining wastewater for valuable resources similarly to gold mining companies mining ore for gold,” Shaw confides.

Now this is where the EPA comes in.

Dr. Vasudevan Namboodiri, an EPA scientist with 20 years of research and development experience, explains that EPA and Pilus are investigating the potential for Pilus Energy technology in the water industry.

With EPA’s technical oversight, Pilus Energy’s goal is to eventually build an industrial pilot-scale prototype.  This type of technology is still in its infancy and will be many years away from large scale production, Dr. Namboodiri explained.

Large- scale usage of the technology could possibly be revolutionary, and provide great benefits in the future. Tauriga CEO Shaw notes that, “There is an enormous global need to maximize all resources available, due to population growth and energy costs.” If applied to whole communities in both developing and developed countries, there could be major benefits such as:

  • Reduced wastewater treatment costs
  • Creation of a renewable energy source
  • Valuable chemical byproducts that could be used towards renewable products
  • Higher quality water for both drinking and recreation
  • Healthier food due to less contaminates in soil
  • Improved ecosystem benefits or services and biodiversity if applied in an entire watershed

Even though the large scale benefits will likely not be seen until years from now, the partnership between Pilus Energy and the EPA helps support EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Services 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Infrastructure is Going Green in Communities Across America

When I released the Water Technology Innovation Blueprint last spring, it framed the top ten opportunities to help solve current water resource issues. Green infrastructure is one of my favorites in the top ten, and it is rapidly expanding across the country. Green infrastructure decreases pollution to local waterways by treating rain where it falls and keeping polluted stormwater from entering sewer systems. Green infrastructure tools and techniques include green roofs, permeable materials, alternative designs for streets and buildings, trees, rain gardens and rain harvesting systems.

Green infrastructure is also a critical tool for addressing climate change and mitigating its impacts by making communities more resilient. Green infrastructure can increase the capacity of sewer systems by reducing the flow into them, making the systems more resilient.

This fall I attended the first national Community Summit on Green Infrastructure, co-hosted by the Syracuse Environmental Finance Center and EPA in partnership with Onondaga County, NY  and the City of Syracuse. The summit provided an opportunity for communities across the country to share experiences and innovation in green infrastructure, while also strengthening the EPA Green Infrastructure Community Partnerships.  The pioneering cities who attended this community summit are ahead of the curve, paving the way for more natural stormwater controls through the use of green infrastructure.

Green roof on top of Syracuse University’s LEED Platinum certified Gateway Center. Photo Credit: Caitlin Eger, Syracuse Environmental Finance Center

More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.