In many surface waters, sewage treatment plant (STP) effluent is a substantial source of both regulated and unregulated contaminants, including a suite of complex organic compounds derived from household chemicals, pharmaceutical, and industrial and medical byproducts. In addition, STP effluents in some urban areas have also been shown to have a positive gadolinium (Gd) anomaly in the rare earth element (REE) pattern, with the Gd derived from its use in medical facilities. REE concentrations are relatively easy to measure compared to many organic wastewater compounds and may provide a more widely utilized tracer of STP effluents. To evaluate whether sewage treatment plant-associated Gd is a useful tracer of treatment plant effluent, an investigation of the occurrence, fate, and transport of rare earth elements was undertaken. The rare earth element patterns of four of five STP effluents sampled display positive Gd anomalies. The one site that did not have a Gd anomaly serves a small community, population 1200, with no medical facilities. Biosolids from a large metropolitan STP are not enriched in Gd even though the effluent is, suggesting that a substantial fraction of Gd remains in the aqueous phase through routine treatment plant operation. To evaluate whether STP-derived Gd persists in the fluvial environment, a 14-km study reach downstream of an STP was sampled. Gadolinium anomalies were present at all five downstream sites, but the magnitude of the anomaly decreased. Effluent from STPs is a complex mixture of organic and inorganic constituents, and to better understand the chemical interactions and their effect on REEs, the aqueous speciation was modeled using comprehensive chemical analyses of water samples collected downstream of STP input. These calculations suggest that the REEs will likely remain dissolved because phosphate and carbonate complexes dominate over free REE ions. This study supports the application of Gd anomalies as a useful tracer of urban wastewater.
Additional publication details
Aqueous stability of gadolinium in surface waters receiving sewage treatment plant effluent Boulder Creek, Colorado