Removal of estrone, 17α-ethinylestradiol, and 17ß-estradiol in algae and duckweed-based wastewater treatment systems

  • Wenxin ShiEmail author
  • Lizheng Wang
  • Diederik P. L. Rousseau
  • Piet N. L. Lens
Research Article


Background, aim, and scope

Many pollutants have received significant attention due to their potential estrogenic effect and are classified as endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs). Because of possible ecological effects and increased attention for water reuse schemes, it is important to increase our understanding of the EDC removal capacities of various wastewater treatment systems. However, there has so far been little research on the fate and behavior of EDCs in stabilization pond systems for wastewater treatment, which represent an important class of wastewater treatment systems in developing countries because of their cost-effectiveness. The aim of this work is to study the fate and behavior of EDCs in algae and duckweed ponds. Because the synthetic hormone 17α-ethinylestradiol (EE2) and the natural hormones estrone (E1), as well as 17β-estradiol (E2), have been detected in effluents of sewage treatment plants and been suggested as the major compounds responsible for endocrine disruption in domestic sewage; E1, E2, and EE2 were therefore chosen as target chemicals in this current work.

Materials and methods

Both batch tests and continuous-flow tests were carried out to investigate the sorption and biodegradation of estrogens in algae and duckweed pond systems. The applied duckweed was a Lemna species. The applied algae was a mixture of pure cultures of six different algae genera, i.e., Anabaena cylindrica, Chlorococcus, Spirulina platensis, Chlorella, Scenedesmus quadricauda, and Anaebena var. Synthetic wastewater were used in all tests. The concentrations of estrogens were measured with three different enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay kits specific for E1, E2, or EE2. When the concentrations of estrogens in water samples were below the lowest quantitative analysis range (0.05 µg/l), preconcentration of the water samples were performed by means of solid phase extraction (SPE) with C18 cartridges.


The 6-day batch tests show that the presence of algae or duckweed accelerated the removal of the three estrogens from the synthetic wastewater. More estrogens were removed in the tests with duckweed than in tests with algae or with wastewater. In the sorption tests, a swift sorption of the three estrogens was observed when the estrogens were contacted with duckweed or algae, while the estrogen concentrations in tap water kept unchanged during the 3-h sorption tests. The mass balances indicated that only about 5% of the estrogens were bound to the algae sediment or duckweed at the end of the 6-day tests. Results of the continuous-flow tests revealed that the algae and duckweed ponds effectively removed E1, E2, and EE2 even at nanograms per liter level. Interconversion of E1 and E2 occurred both in batch and continuous-flow tests. E2 could be readily transformed to E1, especially in the tests with algae.


Different processes like sorption, biodegradation and photolytic degradation might play an important role in the removal of estrogens from the aquatic phase. The 3-h sorption tests support the importance of sorption for estrogen removal, in which a rapid initial sorption was observed over the first 2 min for E1/E2/EE2 to both duckweed and algae. In the 6-day batch tests, estrogens were sorbed by algae or duckweed during the early stage when algae and duckweed were contacted with the synthetic wastewater and the sorbed estrogens were further biodegraded by the microorganisms developed in the wastewater. The persistent estrogen concentrations in tap water, however, implied that no sorption, biodegradation, or photolytic degradation occurred in tap water under the specific experimental conditions. Under aerobic or anoxic conditions, E2 could be first oxidized to E1, which is further oxidized to unknown metabolites and finally to CO2 and water. Under anaerobic conditions, E1 can also be reduced to E2. However, the interconversion might be much more complex especially in the tests with algae because both aerobic and anaerobic conditions occurred in these tests due to the variation of the dissolved oxygen concentration induced by the light regime.


This study shows that estrogens, E1, E2, and EE2, can be effectively removed from the continuous-flow algae and duckweed ponds even when their concentrations are at nanograms per liter level. The presence of algae and duckweed accelerate the removal of estrogens from the synthetic wastewater because estrogens can be quickly sorbed on duckweed or algae. The sorbed estrogens are subsequently degraded by microorganisms, algae, or duckweed in the wastewater treatment system. E1 and E2 are interconvertible in both duckweed and algae pond systems. E2 can be readily transformed to E1, especially in the tests with algae.

Recommendation and perspectives

Based on the tests performed so far, one can conclude that both sorption and biodegradation are important to the estrogens removal from stabilization pond systems for wastewater treatment. Further research using, e.g., radioimmunoassay is needed to investigate the biodegradation pathway of estrogens in algae and duckweed ponds.


17α-ethinylestradiol 17ß-estradiol Algae pond Duckweed pond Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) Estrone Wastewater 



This work was supported by the State Key Lab of Urban Water Resource and Environment (HIT, 2008QN05), SWITCH project (EU FP6, contract No.018530) and the National High Technology Research and Development Program of China (2006AA06Z303). Many thanks to Fred Kruis, Frank Wiegman, Don van Galen, Peter Heerings, and Lyzette Robbemont for supporting the determination of estrogens.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wenxin Shi
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Lizheng Wang
    • 2
  • Diederik P. L. Rousseau
    • 2
  • Piet N. L. Lens
    • 2
  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Urban Water Resources and Environment, School of Municipal and Environmental EngineeringHarbin Institute of TechnologyHarbinPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Resources, Pollution Prevention and Control CoreUNESCO-IHE Institute for Water EducationDelftThe Netherlands

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