Fate of natural estrogen conjugates in municipal sewage transport and treatment facilities

Sci Total Environ. 2003 Jan 20;302(1-3):199-209. doi: 10.1016/s0048-9697(02)00342-x.


The aim of this study was to investigate the fate of the conjugated forms of the three most common natural estrogens in the municipal aqueous environment. Levels of conjugated and free estrogens in (1) female urine; (2) a septic tank collecting domestic wastewater; (3) influents and effluents of six activated sludge sewage treatment plants (STPs) were measured. The analytical method was based on solid-phase extraction by using a Carbograph 4 cartridge and Liquid Chromatography-tandem Mass Spectrometry. On average, a group of 73 women selected to represent a typical cross section of the female inhabitants of a Roman condominium, excreted 106, 14 and 32 microg/day of conjugated estriol (E(3)), estradiol (E(2)) and estrone (E(1)), respectively. Apart from some E(3) in pregnancy urine, free estrogens were never detected in urine samples. Estrogen sulfates represented 21% of the total conjugated estrogens. This situation changed markedly in the condominium collecting tank. Here, significant amounts of free estrogens were observed and the estrogen sulfate to estrogen glucuronated ratio rose to 55/45. A laboratory biodegradation test confirmed that glucuronated estrogens are readily deconjugated in unmodified domestic wastewater, presumably due to the large amounts of the beta-glucuronidase enzyme produced by fecal bacteria (Escherichia coli). Deconjugation continued in sewer transit. At the STP entrance, free estrogens and sulfated estrogens were the dominant species. The sewage treatment completely removed residues of estrogen glucuronates and with good efficiency (84-97%) the other analytes, but not E(1) (61%) and estrone-3-sulfate (E(1)-3S) (64%). Considering that (1) E(1) has half the estrogenic potency of E(2), (2) the amount of the former species discharged from STPs into the receiving water was more than ten times larger than the latter one and (3) a certain fraction of E(1)-3S could be converted to E(1) in the aquatic environment, E(1) appears to be the most important natural endocrine disrupter.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Estrogens / analysis*
  • Estrogens / urine
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Italy
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Middle Aged
  • Reference Values
  • Sewage / chemistry*
  • Waste Disposal, Fluid*
  • Water Pollutants / analysis*


  • Estrogens
  • Sewage
  • Water Pollutants