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Penn State studies environmental effects of COVID-19 meds persisting in wastewater

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A team of U.S. researchers has determined that a number of COVID-19-related treatment medications do persist in wastewater, but say more work needs to be done to understand the potential impact on aquatic life.

The Pennsylvania State University researchers found COVID-19 patient treatment medications, such as remdesivir, dexamethasone and antibiotics for associated bacterial infections, when sampling influent and effluent from two wastewater treatment plants in central Pennsylvania between May 2020 and May 2021. One of the sites had a hospital in its service area.

Among the antibiotics tested, the team found that the concentrations of the antibiotic trimethoprim could pose a low-to-medium risk to aquatic life, while sulfamethoxazole — also an antibiotic — could pose a high risk, specifically to algae, which is a food source for many organisms.

“While the concentrations we calculated considered the individual risks that each drug could pose on aquatic life, these calculations do not account for the potential risks that could come from the synergistic effects of these drugs in a mixture, which could be much higher,” stated Heather Preisendanz, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State, in an announcement. “Importantly, our study highlights the opportunity that wastewater surveillance provides to understand the effects of human health on water quality and ecological health,” she added.

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A recent report from the Royal Society of Canada applauded wastewater surveillance programs and recommended they be supported and continued to develop rapid responses to future public health threats.

The research team, which also included scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that remdesivir concentrations were correlated with the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, while dexamethasone concentrations were associated with the number of hospitalized patients on ventilators. These medications treat severe upper respiratory inflammation in patients on ventilators. The wastewater treatment plant servicing the hospital saw average removal efficiencies of 39% for remdesivir and 56% for dexamethasone.

The two wastewater treatment plants involved in the research are the Penn State Water Reclamation Facility and the University Area Joint Authority.

The Penn State team’s findings are published in the Journal of Environmental Quality.

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