Determination of cytotoxicity following oxidative treatment of pharmaceutical residues in wastewater

Martien H.F. Graumans (Corresponding author), Hedwig van Hove, Tom Schirris, Wilfred F.L.M. Hoeben, Maurice F.P. van Dael, Rob B.M. Anzion, Frans G.M. Russel, Paul T.J. Scheepers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Pharmaceutical residues are released in the aquatic environment due to incomplete removal from wastewater. With the presence of multiple chemicals in sewage waters, contaminants may adversely affect the effectiveness of a wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). In certain cases, discharged metabolites are transformed back into their pristine structure and become bioactive again. Other compounds are persistent and can withstand conventional wastewater treatment. When WWTP effluents are released in surface waters, pristine and persistent chemicals can affect the aquatic environment. To complement WWTPs and circumvent incomplete removal of unwanted chemicals or pharmaceuticals, on-site wastewater treatment can contribute to their removal. Advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) are very powerful techniques for the abatement of pharmaceuticals, however, under certain circumstances reactive toxic by-products can be produced. We studied the application of on-site AOPs in a laboratory setting. It is expected that treatment at the contamination source can eliminate the worst polluters. Thermal plasma and UV/H 2O 2 oxidation were applied on simulation matrices, Milli-Q and synthetic sewage water spiked with 10 different pharmaceuticals in a range of 0.1 up to 2400 μg/L. In addition, untreated end-of-pipe hospital effluent was also subjected to oxidative treatment. The matrices were activated for 180 min and added to cultured HeLa cells. The cells were 24 h and 48 h exposed at 37 °C and subsequently markers for oxidative stress and viability were measured. During the UV/H 2O 2 treatment periods no toxicity was observed. After thermal plasma activation of Milli-Q water (150 and 180 min) toxicity was observed. Direct application of thermal plasma treatment in hospital sewage water caused elimination of toxic substances. The low cytotoxicity of treated pharmaceutical residues is likely to become negligible if plasma pre-treated on-site wastewater is further diluted with other sewage water streams, before reaching the WWTP. Our study suggests that AOPs may be promising technologies to remove a substantial portion of pharmaceutical components by degradation at the source. Further studies will have to be performed to verify the feasibility of upscaling this technology from the benchtop to practice.

Original languageEnglish
Article number135022
Number of pages11
Issue numberPart 2
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022


  • Cell viability
  • Cytotoxicity assay
  • HeLa cells
  • Oxidative stress
  • Pharmaceutical residues
  • Thermal plasma activation
  • UV-C/hydrogen peroxide


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