Sterols indicate water quality and wastewater treatment efficiency

Research paper by Elke S. Reichwaldt, Wei Ying Ho, Wenxu Zhou, Anas Ghadouani

Indexed on: 09 Nov '16Published on: 08 Nov '16Published in: Water Research


As the world's population continues to grow, water pollution is presenting one of the biggest challenges worldwide. More wastewater is being generated and the demand for clean water is increasing. To ensure the safety and health of humans and the environment, highly efficient wastewater treatment systems, and a reliable assessment of water quality and pollutants are required. The advance of holistic approaches to water quality management and the increasing use of ecological water treatment technologies, such as constructed wetlands and waste stabilisation ponds (WSPs), challenge the appropriateness of commonly used water quality indicators. Instead, additional indicators, which are direct measures of the processes involved in the stabilisation of human waste, have to be established to provide an in-depth understanding of system performance. In this study we identified the sterol composition of wastewater treated in WSPs and assessed the suitability of human sterol levels as a bioindicator of treatment efficiency of wastewater in WSPs. As treatment progressed in WSPs, the relative abundance of human faecal sterols, such as coprostanol, epicoprostanol, 24-ethylcoprostanol, and sitostanol decreased significantly and the sterol composition in wastewater changed significantly. Furthermore, sterol levels were found to be correlated with commonly used wastewater quality indicators, such as BOD, TSS and E. coli. Three of the seven sterol ratios that have previously been used to track sewage pollution in the environment, detected a faecal signal in the effluent of WSPs, however, the others were influenced by high prevalence of sterols originating from algal and fungal activities. This finding poses a concern for environmental assessment studies, because environmental pollution from waste stabilisation ponds can go unnoticed. In conclusion, faecal sterols and their ratios can be used as reliable indicators of treatment efficiency and water quality during wastewater treatment in WSPs. They can complement the use of commonly used indicators of water quality, to provide essential information on the overall performance of ponds and whether a pond is underperforming in terms of stabilising human waste. Such a holistic understanding is essential when the aim is to improve the performance of a treatment plant, build new plants or expand existing infrastructure. Future work should aim at further establishing the use of sterols as reliable water quality indicators on a broader scale across natural and engineered systems.

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