River biofilm community changes related to pharmaceutical loads emitted by a wastewater treatment plant


Wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) are the main sources of a broad spectrum of pharmaceuticals found in freshwater ecosystems. These pollutants raise environmental health concerns because of their highly bioactive nature and their chronic releases. Despite this, pharmaceuticals’ effects on aquatic environments are poorly defined. Biofilms represent a major part of the microbial life in rivers and streams. They can drive key metabolic cycles and their organizations reflect exposures to changing chemical, physical, and biological constraints. This study estimated the concentrations, over a 3-year period, of ten pharmaceuticals and five nutrients in a river contaminated by a conventional WWTP fed by urban and hospital wastewaters. Variations in these concentrations were related to biofilm bacterial community dynamics. Rock biofilms had developed over defined periods and were harvested at four locations in the river from the up- and downstream WWTP discharge point. Pharmaceuticals were found in all locations in concentrations ranging from not being detected to 192 ng L−1. Despite the high dilution factor of the WWTP effluents by the receiving river, pharmaceuticals were found more concentrated downstream than upstream the WWTP. Shifts in bacterial community structures linked to the environmental emission of pharmaceuticals were superior to seasonal community changes. A community structure from a site located downstream but close to the WWTP was more strongly associated with high pharmaceutical loads and different from those of biofilm samples from the WWTP upstream or far downstream sites. These latter sites were more strongly associated with high nutrient contents. Low environmental concentrations of pharmaceuticals can thus be transferred from WWTP effluents to a connected stream and induce bacterial aquatic community changes over time.

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Fig. 1
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Fig. 3



Centre Hospitalier Alpes Léman


Close downstream


Close upstream


Contaminant candidate List


Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis


Far downstream


Far upstream


Federal Office of the Environment of Switzerland


Global Water Research Coalition


High-performance liquid chromatography coupled to a mass spectrometer


Hospital treated effluents


Hospital wastewater


Multidimensional scaling


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs


Principal component analysis


Redundancy analyses


Site Pilote de Bellecombe


Solid-phase extraction


Total inorganic nitrogen


Urban treated effluents


Urban wastewater


Wastewater treatment plant


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This study was partly funded by Anses project “persist-env” #2012/2/149 of the “Programme Environnement-Santé-Travail” (French Ministers in charge of ecological and environmental issues). This study was part of the SIPIBEL field observatory on hospital’s effluents and urban WWTPs. The work was done in collaboration with V. Lecomte (GRAIE). We thank our institutions for partial funding of this work. We thank B. Montuelle, F. Rimet, R. Sommaruga, and anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Teofana Chonova.

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Chonova, T., Labanowski, J., Cournoyer, B. et al. River biofilm community changes related to pharmaceutical loads emitted by a wastewater treatment plant. Environ Sci Pollut Res 25, 9254–9264 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-0024-0

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  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Environmental risk assessment
  • Pollution
  • WWTP effluents
  • Biofilm
  • Molecular fingerprinting
  • Bacterial communities
  • River