Use of acetaminophen and sucralose as co-analytes to differentiate sources of human excreta in surface waters

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Water Research


Reducing pathogenic risks in surface waters impacted by leaking or overflowing sewage requires the ability to detect human excreta in raw sewage, discriminate human excreta from other types of animal excreta, and differentiate between treated wastewater and raw sewage. We used the relative concentrations of a degradable, human-specific pharmaceutical and a persistent artificial sweetener to indicate the presence of human excreta, its degree of environmental degradation, and the amount of dilution by freshwater sources. Samples were collected and analyzed for acetaminophen and sucralose between 2016 and 2018 from wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and streams in metropolitan Lexington, Kentucky (USA). Both co-analytes were consistently present in raw sewage, with acetaminophen in higher concentrations than sucralose. The presence of acetaminophen was related primarily to untreated human excreta, with concentrations rapidly decreasing upon treatment to nearly undetectable levels in WWTP effluents and streams. Sucralose in surface waters was related to inputs of both raw sewage and WWTP effluents. The ratio of acetaminophen to sucralose concentrations in raw sewage and spiked river waters exhibited linear decay kinetics with respect to time, with larger decay constants observed at higher temperatures. This co-analyte indicator approach was evaluated at a local site previously suspected of receiving raw sewage. The presence and ratios of the co-analytes indicated the presence of domestic sewage that was not fully treated.

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This research was partially funded by the U.S. Geological Survey through the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute 2017–2018 104B program (GP6A00055).