USGS - science for a changing world

Environmental Health - Toxic Substances

Investigations - Contaminants of Emerging Concern in the Environment

Potential Removal by Wastewater and Drinking Water Treatment

Existing conventional treatment practices used by wastewater and drinking water treatment plants throughout the United States are designed to remove or significantly decrease the amounts and concentrations of a limited number of targeted contaminants. Federal and other governmental regulations determine effluent water criteria and drinking water standards for those targeted contaminants which in turn are used by treatment plant personnel to determine appropriate treatment practices. It is likely that there is some removal of emerging contaminants at wastewater and drinking water plants because of chemical and microbiological similarities between many emerging contaminants and the contaminants that are currently being treated. Typically, drinking water standards require more varied and complex treatment practices than conventional wastewater treatment. The extent to which these existing treatment practices decrease amounts and concentrations of emerging contaminants is an active research topic throughout the world.

Wastewater Treatment Project in New York:

In May, 2003, a cooperative study including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was begun to assess the occurrence and concentrations of emerging contaminants in central and southeast New York state. The results of the first year's study indicate many of these compounds can be detected in the effluent and receiving streams below many of these wastewater treatment plants (WWTP). Results are also being used by USGS in collaboration with New York state consultants to design research on the efficacy of treatment practices at the five WWTPs in removing the targeted emerging contaminants. An intensive sampling design will help to quantify the ability of specific standard and advanced wastewater treatment processes such as activated sludge, trickling filters, deep bed sand/anthracite filtration, membrane filtration, chlorination and ultraviolet (UV) disinfection to remove or transform a range of emerging contaminants.

Drinking Water Treatment Project in New Jersey:

In a study conducted by the USGS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 24 water samples were collected at selected locations within a drinking-water-treatment (DWT) facility and from the two streams that serve the facility to evaluate the potential for wastewater-related organic contaminants to survive a conventional treatment process and persist in potable-water supplies. Stream-water samples as well as samples of raw, settled, filtered, and finished water were collected during low-flow conditions, when the discharge of effluent from upstream municipal sewage-treatment plants accounted for 37 to 67 percent of flow in stream 1 and 10 to 20 percent of flow in stream 2. Each sample was analyzed for 106 emerging contaminants that represent a diverse group of extensively used chemicals. Forty emerging contaminants were detected in one or more samples of stream water or untreated water supplies in the treatment plant; 34 were detected in more than 10 percent of these samples. Several of these compounds also were frequently detected in samples of treated water; these compounds include selected prescription and non-prescription drugs and their metabolites, fragrance compounds, flame retardants and plasticizers, cosmetic compounds, and a solvent.

Related Science Feature Articles

Available Publications

Adams, C., Wang, Y., Loftin, K., and Meyer, M.T., 2002, Removal of antibiotics from surface and distilled water in conventional water treatment processes: Journal of Environmental Engineering, v. 128, no. 3, p. 253-260.

Phillips, P.J., Stinson, B., Zaugg, S.D., and Furlong, E.T., 2004, Concentrations of organic compounds in wastewater at five sites in New York State, 2003: in Proceedings of the 4nd International conference on pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting chemicals in water, Minneapolis, Minn., National Ground Water Association, October 13-15, 2004, CD-ROM, p. 73-74.

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 discharges - Potential for use as indicators of human fecal contamination: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 39, no. 14, p. 5157-5169, doi: 10.1021/es048120k.

Stackelberg, P., Furlong, E., Zaugg, S., Meyer, M., Gibs, J., and Lippincott, R..L., 2004, Fate of organic wastewater-related contaminants in a drinking-water-treatment plant: in Proceedings of the 4nd International conference on pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting chemicals in water, Minneapolis, Minn., National Ground Water Association, October 13-15, 2004, CD-ROM, p. 17-18.

More Information

  • Project contact: Mike Focazio
  • Project contact: Paul Stackelberg
  • Project contact: Pat Phillips

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