Introduction of human pharmaceuticals from wastewater treatment plants into the aquatic environment: a rural perspective

Carolina Nebot, Raquel Falcon, Kenneth G. Boyd, Stuart W. Gibb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


Incomplete removal of pharmaceuticals during wastewater treatment can result in their discharge into the aquatic environment. The discharge of pharmaceuticals in wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) effluents into rivers, lakes and the oceans has led to detectable concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment in many countries. However, to date studies of WWTP discharges into the aquatic environment have largely been confined to areas of relatively high population density, industrial activity or systems impacted on by such areas. In this work, two sites in the far north of Scotland were used to assess whether, and which, pharmaceuticals were being introduced into natural waters in a rural environment with low population density. Samples from two WWTPs (with differing modes of operation), and one receiving water, the River Thurso, were analysed for the presence of 12 pharmaceuticals (diclofenac, clofibric acid, erythromycin, ibuprofen, mefenamic acid, paracetamol, propranolol, sulfamethoxazole, tamoxifen, trimethoprim and dextropropoxyphene). Ten of the 12 pharmaceuticals investigated were detected in at least one of the 40 WWTP effluent samples. Maximum concentrations ranged from 7 ng L−1 (sulfamethoxazole) to 22.8 μg L−1 (paracetamol) with diclofenac and mefenamic acid being present in all of samples analysed at concentrations between 24.2 and 927 ng L−1 and 11.5 and 22.8 μg L−1, respectively. Additionally, the presence of four pharmaceuticals at ng L−1 levels in the River Thurso, into which one of the WWTPs discharges, shows that such discharges result in measurable levels of pharmaceuticals in the environment. This provides direct evidence that, even in rural areas with low population densities, effluents from WWTPs can produce quantifiable levels of human pharmaceutical in the natural aquatic environment. These observations indicate that human pharmaceuticals may be considered as contaminants, with potential to influence water quality, management and conservation not only in urban and industrial regions but also those more rural in nature.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10559-10568
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Pollution Research
Issue number14
Early online date5 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Wastewater
  • Ruralareas
  • River water


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