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Wastewater Treatment Plants Help Stop Pharmaceutical Contamination

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When talking about wastewater we mean water that is unfit for use in commercial, industrial, domestic or agricultural use. The term is often related to sewage and it includes water that comes from storms and run-offs. However, this is not water that is useless as it does play an important role in the global water demand. On saying this, it does have to go through specific processes to be deemed reusable. This is where wastewater treatment plants play their part and one thing they have to address is pharmaceutical contamination. 

Huge amounts of pharmaceuticals are continuously been introduced to sewage systems by way of urination, excreta, incorrect disposal of drugs and manufacturer discharges. If the compounds are not removed through wastewater treatment plants, effluent is released into rivers and such where the pharmaceuticals contaminate groundwater and drinking water. 

Antibiotics are the biggest concern in wastewater:

One of the biggest concerns of contaminants in wastewater is antibiotics and antibiotic resistance to wastewater treatment. The medication is valuable in society and has been a turnaround as the cure for many illnesses and diseases; however, they do end up in wastewater and can become harmful.

Along with old or surplus antibiotics being flushed into wastewater down drains, they are used in a wide variety of areas including livestock farming, poultry production and fish farming. In fact, during the last six decades, it has brought about a genetic selection of harmful bacteria through leakage into wastewater. 

Along with antibiotics, other pharmaceuticals, including lipid regulators and anti-inflammatory drugs have become an issue in wastewater. 

Without wastewater treatment plants and effective wastewater pumping treatment in place, there would be a huge health risk, even though antibiotics have been found in the effluent that has been treated. 

While the UK and Europe have come a long way in the treatment of wastewater, there are still around 1.8 billion people worldwide using contaminated drinking water and half of the deaths that occur are in children under the age of 5. 

Antibiotic resistance is a public health threat around the globe and will continue to be if wastewater treatment plants do not have sufficient processes to neutralise antibiotic-resistant genes and bacteria. 

A comprehensive study during 2016/2016 showed 53 antibiotics were found in wastewater treatment plants’ final effluents in 7 countries. 

The highest levels of antibiotics were found in Ireland, Portugal and Spain, while the lowest levels were found in Cyprus, Finland, Germany and Norway. 

 Of the antibiotics tested in wastewater Azithromycin, Cephalexin and Ciprofloxacin were among the highest cause of antibiotic pollution. Of the 53 monitored 17 were found at least once in the final effluent of some wastewater treatment plants. 

The detected levels of antibiotics found in the wastewater and released back into the environment were said to have a moderate impact on the environment in general. 

Studies such as these are extremely important if we are to map the impact that antibiotic pollution has, along with providing a strong base for designing water quality along with environmental risk in water monitoring programs. 

What is being done to stop pharmaceutical contamination:

Thankfully, steps are being taken to remove antibiotics from wastewater, even though they do have resistance and further research is being conducted. Fish farmers have come to realise that breeding wastewater is among the highest source of antibiotics within the aquatic environment. This is down to the treatment systems that are undeveloped in breeding farms. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to establish an antibiotic removal process from breeding wastewater, which is effective.  Some of the processes that can be put into place include:

  • Biological treatments;
  • Constructed wetlands;
  • Membrane technology;
  • Advanced oxidation processes;
  • A combination of treatments.

Conventional and emerging technologies:

Efficient wastewater pumping treatment is essential, more so in pharmaceutical wastewater treatment plants. A good strategy to reduce the amount of pollution in plants such as these is discharging the effluent into a local integrated WWTP to undergo further treatment. 

A municipal wastewater treatment plant uses three stages, preliminary treatment, secondary treatment and filtration. 

The second stage is where the majority of pollutants, which includes antibiotics, are removed. This stage uses both biological and chemical processes. It has been proposed that biological decomposition, sorption to suspended solids or the incorporation of microbial communities be used. 

It has also been suggested that artificial intelligence can play a part as an emerging technology. One such AI solution is Emagin. Artificial neural networks and hybrid intelligent techniques make for practical applications for modelling various processes in water, along with wastewater treatment. 

Artificial intelligence can even be used to model, along with simulate, wastewater treatment plants even in cases where data is insufficient. AI models help operators to better understand and make improvements to the performance of wastewater treatment plants. 

AI software can be used alongside existing wastewater treatment plant process data, SCADA and control systems thanks to hardware-to-software. 

Thanks to the feedback mechanism of the AI software and machine learning being robust chemical dosing may be modified in near real-time. With manual control, this is not possible and there is a risk of either over or under-dosing wastewater. 

The AI software applications can consider the track record of the wastewater plant, along with real-time performance and come up with predictive recommendations for the operators. Thanks to intuitive AI-based forecasting, plant operators can make improvements to decision-making to obtain results that are not only more accurate but also efficient. 

AI is an excellent predictive tool being able to monitor data concerning the machinery used to make predictions about breakdown periods. It does so much more than notify technicians it can also give a root cause which saves time compared to manually troubleshooting. AI can also design efficient methods of wastewater treatment allowing for a reduction in energy consumption and promoting climate saving. 

Of course, there is not going to be a robot revolution, AI will never override operators and manual control, it is simply in place as an intelligent assistant. The combination of AI and human intelligence is the future for the excellent management of wastewater, along with the optimisation of antibiotics and chemical wastewater treatment. 

So, the next time you think about flushing any unused antibiotics down your drain, think again and dispose of them more responsibly.

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