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Landfill Leachate Released to Wastewater Treatment Plants and other Environmental Pathways Contains a Mixture of Contaminants including Pharmaceuticals

Posted by U.S. Geological Survey

Apr 25, 2017 9:08:00 AM

New scientific research from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) details how landfill leachate, disposed from landfills to environmental pathways, is host to numerous contaminants.

Landfills are the final repository for a heterogeneous mixture of liquid and solid waste from residential, industrial, and commercial sources, and thus, have the potential to produce leachate—a liquid waste product that consists of a diverse mixture of chemicals as precipitation or applied water moves through the waste. Landfills are often not the final repository for leachate which can be discharged to surface waters following onsite or offsite wastewater treatment.

In some cases USGS scientists collected leachate samples from manhole access points like this one. Photo Credit: Dana W. Kolpin, USGS

In this national-scale study, scientists provide an assessment of CECs in landfill leachate disposed offsite that has undergone treatment or storage processes (final leachate) at landfills across the United States to gain a greater understanding of this potential contaminant source to the environment. This study follows and advances previous USGS research of leachate prior to onsite treatment, storage processes, and offsite disposal (fresh leachate).

In this study, final leachate samples from 22 landfills were collected and analyzed for 190 CECs including pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, household chemicals, steroid hormones, and plant/animal sterols. The sampling network included municipal and private landfills with varying landfill waste compositions; geographic and climatic settings; ages of waste, waste loads, and leachate production; and leachate management strategies.

Sample bottles like these filled with leachate were analyzed for contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) including pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, household chemicals, steroid hormones, and plant/animal sterols. Photo Credit: Dana W. Kolpin, USGS
Scientists determined that final leachate samples contained 101 of the 190 chemicals analyzed for the study, with chemicals present in every final leachate sample collected at levels ranging from as low as 2 nanograms per liter (ng/L) to as high as 17,200,000 ng/L. The most frequently detected CECs were lidocaine (local anesthetic, found in 91 percent of samples), cotinine (nicotine breakdown product, 86 percent), carisoprodol (muscle relaxant, 82 percent), bisphenol A (component for plastics and thermal paper, 77 percent), carbamazepine (anticonvulsant, 77 percent), and N,N-diethyltoluamide (DEET, insect repellent, 68 percent).

A detailed comparison of CEC concentrations between final leachate in landfills included in this study and the previous study of fresh leachate indicated that levels of CECs were significantly less in final leachate compared to those observed in fresh leachate samples. Nevertheless, final leachate still contained a complex mixture of CECs at concentrations that may be potential cause for concern if released to the environment.

This research is part of continuing USGS efforts to quantify the contribution of contaminants in leachate released from landfills to various pathways that ultimately lead to the environment. Use of landfills as a means of waste disposal will likely increase as the global population continues to increase. Despite advancements in recycling, source reduction, and composting, the amount of municipal solid waste discarded in U.S. landfills increased from 150 million tons in 1985 to 165 million tons in 2010. The study is intended to inform landfill managers, stakeholders, and regulators about chemicals present in landfill leachate disposed offsite to environmental pathways.

The study was supported by the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program.


Masoner, J.R., Kolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Cozzarelli, I.M., and Gray, J.L., 2015, Landfill leachate as a mirror of today's disposable society--Pharmaceuticals and other contaminants of emerging concern in final leachate from landfills in the conterminous United States: Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, doi:10.1002/etc.3219 (Advanced Web release).

Masoner, J.R., Kolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Cozzarelli, I.M., Gray, J.L., and Schwab, E.A., 2014, Contaminants of emerging concern in fresh leachate from landfills in the conterminous United States: Environmental Science--Processes and Impacts, v. 16, no. 10, p. 2335-2354, doi:10.1039/C4EM00124A.

More Information

The Complex Mixture

Overall, there were 73 organic chemicals detected in the effluent from the Boulder, Colorado, wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) and 56 chemicals detected in Boulder Creek stream water below the WWTP discharge point. There were 98 organic chemicals detected in the effluent from the Ankeny, Iowa, WWTP and 71 chemicals detected in Fourmile Creek below the WWTP discharge point.

The mixtures contained metal complexing agents, detergent degradation products, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, steroidal hormones, pesticides, and other compounds. The highest concentration compounds (greater than 100 micrograms per liter) detected in both WWTP effluents were ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA – a metal complexing agent) and 4- nonylphenolethoxycarboxylate (a detergent degradation product).

Concentrations of pharmaceuticals were lower (less than 1 microgram per liter), and several compounds, including carbamazepine (a drug used to control seizures) and sulfamethoxazole (an antibiotic), were detected throughout sections of the two streams that were studied.

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