A review of pharmaceutical occurrence and pathways in the aquatic environment in the context of a changing climate and the COVID-19 pandemic
Active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) are increasingly being identified as contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). They have potentially detrimental ecological and human health impacts but most are not currently subject to environmental regulation. Addressing the life cycle of these pharmaceuticals plays a significant role in identifying the potential sources and understanding the environmental impact that pharmaceuticals may have in surface waters. The stability and biological activity of these “micro-pollutants” can lead to a pseudo persistence, with ensuing unknown chronic behavioural and health-related effects. Research that investigates pharmaceuticals predominantly focuses on their occurrence and effect within surface water environments. However, this review will help to collate this information with factors that affect their environmental concentration. This review focuses on six pharmaceuticals (clarithromycin, ciprofloxacin, sulfamethoxazole, venlafaxine, gemfibrozil and diclofenac), chosen because they are heavily consumed globally, have poor removal rates in conventional activated sludge wastewater treatment plants (CAS WWTPs), and are persistent in the aquatic environment. Furthermore, these pharmaceuticals are included in numerous published prioritisation studies and/or are on the Water Framework Directive (WFD) “Watch List” or are candidates for the updated Watch List (WL). This review investigates the concentrations seen in European Union (EU) surface waters and examines factors that influence final concentrations prior to release, thus giving a holistic overview on the source of pharmaceutical surface water pollution. A period of 10 years is covered by this review, which includes research from 2009–2020 examining over 100 published studies, and highlighting that pharmaceuticals can pose a severe risk to surface water environments, with each stage of the lifecycle of the pharmaceutical determining its concentration. This review additionally highlights the necessity to improve education surrounding appropriate use, disposal and waste management of pharmaceuticals, while implementing a source directed and end of pipe approach to reduce pharmaceutical occurrence in surface waters.