Antimicrobial activity of pharmaceutical cocktails in sewage treatment plant effluent - An experimental and predictive approach to mixture risk assessment

Environ Pollut. 2017 Dec;231(Pt 2):1507-1517. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2017.09.009. Epub 2017 Sep 28.


Municipal wastewater contains multi-component mixtures of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). This could shape microbial communities in sewage treatment plants (STPs) and the effluent-receiving ecosystems. In this paper we assess the risk of antimicrobial effects in STPs and the aquatic environment for a mixture of 18 APIs that was previously detected in the effluent of a European municipal STP. Effects on microbial consortia (collected from a separate STP) were determined using respirometry, enumeration of culturable microorganisms and community-level physiological profiling. The mixture toxicity against selected bacteria was assessed using assays with Pseudomonas putida and Vibrio fischeri. Additional data on the toxicity to environmental bacteria were compiled from literature in order to assess the individual and expected joint bacterial toxicity of the pharmaceuticals in the mixture. The reported effluent concentration of the mixture was 15.4 nmol/l and the lowest experimentally obtained effect concentrations (EC10) were 242 nmol/l for microbial consortia in STPs, 225 nmol/l for P. putida and 73 nmol/l for V. fischeri. The lowest published effect concentrations (EC50) of the individual antibiotics in the mixture range between 15 and 150 nmol/l, whereas 0.9-190 μmol/l was the range of bacterial EC50 values found for the non-antibiotic mixture components. Pharmaceutical cocktails could shape microbial communities at concentrations relevant to STPs and the effluent receiving aquatic environment. The risk of antimicrobial mixture effects was completely dominated by the presence of antibiotics, whereas other pharmaceutical classes contributed only negligibly to the mixture toxicity. The joint bacterial toxicity can be accurately predicted from the individual toxicity of the mixture components, provided that standardized data on representative bacterial strains becomes available for all relevant compounds. These findings argue for a more sophisticated bacterial toxicity assessment of environmentally relevant pharmaceuticals, especially for those with a mode of action that is known to specifically affect prokaryotic microorganisms.

Keywords: Antibiotics; Environmental bacteria; Microbial communities; Mixture toxicity.

MeSH terms

  • Aliivibrio fischeri / drug effects
  • Anti-Infective Agents / analysis
  • Anti-Infective Agents / toxicity*
  • Biological Assay
  • Microbial Consortia / drug effects*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Pseudomonas putida / drug effects
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sewage / analysis*
  • Sewage / microbiology
  • Wastewater / chemistry*
  • Wastewater / microbiology
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity*


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Sewage
  • Waste Water
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical