Fate and Impacts of Contaminants of Emerging Concern during Wastewater Treatment


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Virginia Tech


The purpose of this dissertation was to broadly investigate the fate of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) as representative contaminants of emerging concern in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). WWTPs may have their performance impacted by ENMs and may also serve as a reservoir and point of release for both ENMs and ARGs into the environment. Of interest were potential adverse effects of ENMs, such as stimulation of antibiotic resistance in the WWTP, toxicity to microbial communities critical for WWTP performance, and toxicity to humans who may be exposed to effluents or aerosols containing ENMs and their transformation products.

Response of nine representative ARGs encoding resistance to sulfonamide, erythromycin and tetracycline to various lab-scale sludge digestion processes were examined, and factors that drove the response of ARGs were discussed. Mesophilic anaerobic digestion significantly reduced sulI, sulII, tet(C), tet(G), and tet(X) with longer solids retention time (SRT) exhibiting a greater extent of removal. Thermophilic anaerobic digesters performed similarly to each other and provided more effective reduction of erm(B), erm(F), tet(O), and tet(W) compared to mesophilic digestion. Thermal hydrolysis pretreatment drastically reduced all ARGs, but they generally rebounded during subsequent anaerobic and aerobic digestion treatments. Bacterial community composition of the sludge digestion process, as controlled by the physical operating characteristics, was indicated to drive the distribution of ARGs present in the produced biosolids, more so than the influent ARG composition.

Effects of silver (nanoAg), zero-valent iron (NZVI), titanium dioxide (nanoTiO2) and cerium dioxide (nanoCeO2) nanomaterials on nitrification function and microbial communities were examined in duplicate lab-scale nitrifying sequencing batch reactors (SBRs), relative to control SBRs received no materials or ionic/bulk analogs. Nitrification function was only inhibited by high load of 20 mg/L Ag+, but not by other nanomaterials or analogs. However, decrease of nitrifier gene abundances and distinct microbial communities were observed in SBRs receiving nanoAg, Ag+, nanoCeO2, and bulkCeO2. There was no apparent effect of nanoTiO2 or NZVI on nitrification, nitrifier gene abundances, or microbial community structure. A large portion of nanoAg remained dispersed in activated sludge and formed Ag-S complexes, while NZVI, nanoTiO2 and nanoCeO2 were mostly aggregated and chemically unmodified. Thus, the nanomaterials appeared to be generally stable in the activated sludge, which may limit their effect on nitrification function or microbial community structure.

Considering an aerosol exposure scenario, cytotoxicity and genotoxicity of aqueous effluent and biosolids from SBRs dosed with nanoAg, NZVI, nanoTiO2 and nanoCeO2 to A549 human lung epithelial cells were examined, and the effects were compared relative to outputs from SBRs dosed with ionic/bulk analogs and undosed SBRs, as well as pristine ENMs. Although the pristine nanomaterials showed varying extents of cytotoxicity to A549 cells, and gentoxicity was observed for nanoAg, no significant cytotoxic or genotoxic effects of the SBR effluents or biosolids containing nanomaterials were observed.

Studies presented in this dissertation provided new insights in the fate of ARGs in various sludge digestion processes and ENMs in nitrifying activated sludge system in lab-scale reactors. The study also yielded toxicity data of ENMs to biological wastewater treatment microbial communities and human lung cells indicated by a variety of toxicity markers. The results will aid in identifying appropriate management technologies for sludge containing ARGs and will inform microbial and human toxicity assessments of ENMs entering WWTPs.



Wastewater treatment, antibiotic resistance genes, engineered nanomaterials, anaerobic digestion, nitrification, toxicity