Contaminants of Emerging Concern: A New Threat to Water Quality

Prescription drug and personal care products (PPCPs) are essential to the quality of human life, providing health and cosmetic benefits. However, despite their positive attributes, PPCPs remain the most common types of contaminants of emerging concern (CEC) found in wastewater, threatening public health and aquatic ecosystems. With no existing regulatory definition, CECs can be any chemicals or toxins detected in water that are not currently regulated and may pose ecological or human health risks.

CEC’s enter waterbodies in three ways: direct disposal (down the drain), indirect disposal (untreated discharge from industry), and excretion (in human and animal waste entering septic systems, stormwater runoff, and wastewater treatment facilities). Once present in water, CECs can threaten aquatic life, as many CECs and PPCPs act as endocrine disruptors, altering the functions of hormones which may result in reproductive issues, lethargy, cancer, and death among inhabitants.  

Though traditional treatment can remove some CECs, most wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and septic systems cannot remove all remnants. Due to their design, most WWTP and septic systems are only equipped to treat degradable organic materials and cannot fully remove large complex compounds found in low concentrations, such as CECs.

To address this complex issue, Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) has reviewed over 280 scientific studies, compiling results into a paper on the effectiveness of 15 different treatment technologies at removing four of the most common CECs (caffeine, carbamazepine, triclosan, and ibuprofen). Though Ecology was unable to identify a definitive approach for removing all CECs, this paper provides an overview of several wastewater treatment options and their CEC removal rates. You can read more about it here.