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Antibiotics in Groundwater Affect Natural Bacteria— Background Information

A glove box in a laboartory
Scientist use glove boxes, such as the one picture here, to work with samples and experiments under anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions. Many microbial processes, such as denitrification or anaerobic biodegradation, occur under anaerobic conditions. Photo credit: Jennifer C. Underwood, USGS.

Previous studies have shown that the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole (SMX) is a contaminant in both U.S. streams (Kolpin and others, 2002) and groundwater (Barnes and others, 2008; Barber and others, 2009). Municipal wastewater treatment plants are being documented as an important source of antibiotics to the environment (Glassmeyer and others, 2005). Sulfamethoxazole has also been observed as high as 1.5 micrograms per liter (µg/L) in wastewater-impacted groundwater, and as high as 29 µg/L in septic tank effluent (Barber and others, 2009; Godfrey and others, 2007). Scientists have also shown that SMX has persisted in a sandy aquifer at the Cape Cod Toxic Substances Hydrology Research Site, Massachusetts, where it was a component of treated wastewater that for decades was disposed of in infiltration beds (Barber and others, 2009).


Barber, L.B., Keefe, S.H., LeBlanc, D.R., Bradley, P.M., Chapelle, F.H., Meyer, M.T., Loftin, K.A., Kolpin, D.W., and Rubio, F., 2009, Fate of sulfamethoxazole, 4-nonyphenol, and 17β-estradiol in groundwater contaminated by wastewater treatment plant effluent: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 43, no. 13, p. 4843-4850, doi:10.1021/es803292v.

Barnes, K.K., Kolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Zaugg, S.D., Meyer, M.T., and Barber, L.B., 2008, A national reconnaissance of pharmaceuticals and other organic wastewater contaminants in the United States--I. Groundwater: Science of the Total Environment, v. 402, no. 2-3, p. 192-200, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2008.04.028.

Glassmeyer, S.T., Furlong, E.T., Kolpin, D.W., Cahill, J.D., Zaugg, S.D., Werner, S.L., Meyer, M.T., and Kryak, D.D., 2005, Transport of chemical and microbial compounds from known wastewater dishcarges--Potential for use as indicators of human fecal contamination: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 39, no. 14, p. 5157-5169, doi:10.1021/es048120k.

Godfrey, E., Woessner, W.W., and Benotti, M.J., 2007, Pharmaceuticals in on-site sewage effluent and ground water, Western Montana: Ground Water, v. 45, no. 3, p. 263-271, doi:10.1111/j.1745-6584.2006.00288.x.

Kolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Meyer, M.T., Thurman, E.M., Zaugg, S.D., Barber, L.B., and Buxton, H.T., 2002, Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in U.S. streams, 1999-2000--A national reconnaissance: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 36, no. 6, p. 1202-1211, doi:10.1021/es011055j.

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