Natural attenuation of pharmaceuticals and an illicit drug in a laboratory column experiment

Chemosphere. 2014 Nov;115:13-9. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2014.01.015. Epub 2014 Mar 1.


Trace amounts of pharmaceutical compounds have been detected in waters across the United States. Many compounds are released as the result of human ingestion and subsequent excretion of over-the-counter and prescription medications, and illicit drugs. This research utilized columns (30×30cm) of sand and undisturbed fine-grained sediments to simulate injection of wastewater containing pharmaceuticals and an illicit drug, such as would be found in a septic system, leaky sewer, or landfill. The columns were placed in a temperature-controlled laboratory and each was injected with natural groundwater containing known concentrations of caffeine, methamphetamine, and acetaminophen. Natural attenuation of each chemical was observed in all columns. The highest amount removed (approximately 90%) occurred in the undisturbed column injected with methamphetamine, compared with little reduction in the sand column. When the suite of drugs was injected, loss of methamphetamine was less than when methamphetamine was injected alone. The subsurface sediments exhibit the ability to remove a substantial amount of the injected pharmaceuticals and illicit drug; however, complete removal was not achieved. There was little attenuation of injected pharmaceuticals in the sand column which demonstrates a concern for water quality in the environment if pharmaceuticals were to contaminate a sandy aquifer. Understanding the transport of pharmaceuticals in the subsurface environment is an important component of protecting drinking water supplies from contamination.

Keywords: Acetaminophen; Biodegradation; Caffeine; Methamphetamine; Natural attenuation; Pharmaceuticals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / isolation & purification*
  • Caffeine / isolation & purification*
  • Equipment Design
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry
  • Groundwater / analysis*
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / isolation & purification*
  • Methamphetamine / isolation & purification*
  • Silicon Dioxide / chemistry
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / isolation & purification*
  • Water Purification / instrumentation*


  • Illicit Drugs
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Acetaminophen
  • Caffeine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Silicon Dioxide