Colloids as a sink for certain pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment

  • Khalid Maskaoui
  • John L. ZhouEmail author
Research Article


Background, aim, and scope

The occurrence and fate of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment is recognized as one of the emerging issues in environmental chemistry and as a matter of public concern. Existing data tend to focus on the concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the aqueous phase, with limited studies on their concentrations in particulate phase such as sediments. Furthermore, current water quality monitoring does not differentiate between soluble and colloidal phases in water samples, hindering our understanding of the bioavailability and bioaccumulation of pharmaceuticals in aquatic organisms. In this study, an investigation was conducted into the concentrations and phase association (soluble, colloidal, suspended particulate matter or SPM) of selected pharmaceuticals (propranolol, sulfamethoxazole, meberverine, thioridazine, carbamazepine, tamoxifen, indomethacine, diclofenac, and meclofenamic acid) in river water, effluents from sewage treatment works (STW), and groundwater in the UK.

Materials and methods

The occurrence and phase association of selected pharmaceuticals propranolol, sulfamethoxazole, meberverine, thioridazine, carbamazepine, tamoxifen, indomethacine, diclofenac, and meclofenamic acid in contrasting aquatic environments (river, sewage effluent, and groundwater) were studied. Colloids were isolated by cross-flow ultrafiltration (CFUF). Water samples were extracted by solid-phase extraction (SPE), while SPM was extracted by microwave. All sample extracts were analyzed by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) in the multiple reaction monitoring.

Results and discussion

Five compounds propranolol, sulfamethoxazole, carbamazepine, indomethacine, and diclofenac were detected in all samples, with carbamazepine showing the highest concentrations in all phases. The highest concentrations of these compounds were detected in STW effluents, confirming STW as a key source of these compounds in the aquatic environments. The calculation of partition coefficients of pharmaceuticals between SPM and filtrate (observed partition coefficients, \( K_p^{\text{obs}} \), \( K_{\text{oc}}^{\text{obs}} \)), between SPM and soluble phase (intrinsic partition coefficients, \( K_p^{\text{int}} \), \( K_{\text{oc}}^{\text{int}} \)), and between colloids and soluble phase (K coc) showed that intrinsic partition coefficients \( \left( {K_p^{\text{int}},K_{\text{oc}}^{\text{int}}} \right) \) are between 25% and 96%, and between 18% and 82% higher than relevant observed partition coefficients values, and are much less variable. Secondly, K coc values are 3–4 orders of magnitude greater than \( K_{\text{oc}}^{\text{int}} \) values, indicating that aquatic colloids are substantially more powerful sorbents for accumulating pharmaceuticals than sediments. Furthermore, mass balance calculations of pharmaceutical concentrations demonstrate that between 23% and 70% of propranolol, 17–62% of sulfamethoxazole, 7–58% of carbamazepine, 19–84% of indomethacine, and 9–74% of diclofenac are present in the colloidal phase.


The results provide direct evidence that sorption to colloids provides an important sink for the pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment. Such strong pharmaceutical/colloid interactions may provide a long-term storage of pharmaceuticals, hence, increasing their persistence while reducing their bioavailability in the environment.

Recommendations and perspectives

Pharmaceutical compounds have been detected not only in the aqueous phase but also in suspended particles; it is important, therefore, to have a holistic approach in future environmental fate investigation of pharmaceuticals. For example, more research is needed to assess the storage and long-term record of pharmaceutical residues in aquatic sediments by which benthic organisms will be most affected. Aquatic colloids have been shown to account for the accumulation of major fractions of total pharmaceutical concentrations in the aquatic environment, demonstrating unequivocally the importance of aquatic colloids as a sink for such residues in the aquatic systems. As aquatic colloids are abundant, ubiquitous, and highly powerful sorbents, they are expected to influence the bioavailability and bioaccumulation of such chemicals by aquatic organisms. It is therefore critical for colloids to be incorporated into water quality models for prediction and risk assessment purposes.


Pharmaceuticals Aquatic colloids Cross-flow ultrafiltration Effluent Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry 



This work was funded by the European Union under FP6 (contract number MIF1-CT-2006-021556). We also thank Andrew Hibberd for help with sampling and colloidal isolation and Prof Eric Achterberg of University of Southampton for DOC analyses.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Life SciencesUniversity of SussexBrightonUK
  2. 2.School of Life SciencesUniversity of SussexBrightonUK

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