Water, Air, & Soil Pollution

, Volume 223, Issue 3, pp 1017–1031 | Cite as

Sewage Treatment Plants Efficiencies in Removal of Sterols and Sterol Ratios as Indicators of Fecal Contamination Sources

  • Vesna FurtulaEmail author
  • Johnny Liu
  • Patricia Chambers
  • Heather Osachoff
  • Chris Kennedy
  • Joanne Harkness


This study assessed the efficiency of sewage treatment plants (STPs) in removing sterols based on chemical analyses of both influents and effluents. Samples from 3s and three tertiary plants were collected and analyzed by gas chromatography mass spectrometry for 23 individual sterols including mestranol, norethindrone, equol, estrone, equilin, norgestrel, 17α-ethinylestradiol, 17α-estradiol, 17β-estradiol, estriol, dihydrocholesterol (cholestanol), coprostanol, epicoprostanol, cholesterol, desmosterol, campesterol, stigmasterol, β-sitosterol, coprostanone, cholestanone, epicholestanol, stigmastanol, and 24-ethylcoprostanol. The percentage of sterols remaining in effluent samples (compared to influent samples) ranged from 0% to 80% and varied among sterol compounds and with STP location and treatment type. Differences in the efficiency of sterol removal for secondary and tertiary STPs were statistically significant. Although the concentration of sterol compounds differed between influents and effluents, sterol abundances remained the same. The most abundant sterol detected was cholesterol, followed by the fecal sterol coprostanol, and the plant sterols 24-ethylcoprostanol and β-sitosterol. For three STPs, the hormone estrone was detected in effluents at concentrations of 0.03–0.05 μg L−1. Ten sterol ratios specific for human fecal contamination and eight sterol ratios for differentiating among multiple sources of fecal contamination were calculated and showed that 12 ratios for influent and nine ratios for effluent were successful for human fecal source tracking. Based on sterol ratio values in this study, new criteria for identification of human fecal contamination were suggested.


Sterol ratios Sewage treatment plant Influent Effluent Human fecal contamination 



We thank the Environment Canada, Pacific Environmental Science Centre for providing the salary for Johnny Liu. We are grateful to the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for funding for Heather Osachoff. We thank the BC Ministry of Environment for providing funding for a portion of this research. Many thanks go to the sewage treatment plants for providing access to their influents and effluents. Special thanks go to reviewers for their detailed and constructive reviews.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vesna Furtula
    • 1
    Email author
  • Johnny Liu
    • 1
  • Patricia Chambers
    • 1
  • Heather Osachoff
    • 2
  • Chris Kennedy
    • 2
  • Joanne Harkness
    • 3
  1. 1.Aquatic Ecosystem Impacts Research Division, Pacific Environmental Science CentreEnvironment CanadaNorth VancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesSimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada
  3. 3.Urban Systems LtdKamloopsCanada

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