Influence of sewage and pharmaceuticals on soil microbial function



Although sewage effluent application to land is a common approach to recycle water and provide nutrients to plants, bioactive pharmaceuticals contained in sewage may change soil quality by affecting soil microbial communities. Establishing causal effects, however, is difficult, because trace levels of pharmaceuticals are confounded with other effluent constituents. Therefore, two originally similar soil microbial communities, one irrigated in situ with sewage effluent for 12 years and another nonirrigated, were exposed to high levels of acetaminophen, aspirin, carbamazepine, chlorpromazine, and tetracycline. The objectives of the current study were to determine the influence of high levels of pharmaceuticals on several soil microbial properties, the effect that prolonged effluent irrigation with ambient levels of pharmaceuticals had on soil microbial function, and how this effect would change in response to pharmaceutical exposure. Several pharmaceuticals, at high exposure levels, imposed stress on the soil microbial community as judged by increased CO2 respiration, decreased biomass carbon, and altered substrate utilization affinities. Prolonged effluent irrigation, which altered the genetic fingerprint of the microbial community, also mitigated the response that exposure to pharmaceuticals had on the microbial community and enabled degradation of the antimicrobial salicylic acid after aspirin exposure. In conclusion, prolonged irrigation with sewage effluent containing pharmaceuticals at ambient levels influenced the microbial community so that they were able to better cope with sudden exposure to high levels of pharmaceuticals. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2011; 30:1086–1095. © 2011 SETAC