A Tale of Two Treatments: The Multiple Barrier Approach to Removing Chemical Contaminants During Potable Water Reuse

In response to water scarcity and an increased recognition of the risks associated with the presence of chemical contaminants, environmental engineers have developed advanced water treatment systems that are capable of converting municipal wastewater effluent into drinking water. This practice, which is referred to as potable water reuse, typically relies upon reverse osmosis (RO) treatment followed by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light and addition of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). These two treatment processes individually are capable of controlling many of the chemical and microbial contaminants in wastewater; however, a few chemicals may still be present after treatment at concentrations that affect water quality.
Low-molecular weight (<200 Da), uncharged compounds represent the greatest challenge for RO treatment. For potable water reuse systems, compounds of greatest concern include oxidation products formed during treatment (e.g., N-nitrosodimethylamine, halogenated disinfection byproducts) and compounds present in wastewater effluent (e.g., odorous compounds, organic solvents). Although the concentrations of most of these compounds decrease to levels where they no longer compromise water quality after they encounter the second treatment barrier (i.e., UV/H2O2), low-molecular weight compounds that are resistant to direct photolysis and exhibit low reactivity with hydroxyl radical (-OH) may persist. While attempts to identify the compounds that pass through both barriers have accounted for approximately half of the dissolved organic carbon remaining after treatment, it is unlikely that a significant fraction of the remaining unknowns will ever be identified with current analytical techniques. Nonetheless, the toxicity-weighted concentration of certain known compounds (e.g., disinfection byproducts) is typically lower in RO-UV/H2O2 treated water than conventional drinking water.
To avoid the expense associated with managing the concentrate produced by RO, environmental engineers have begun to employ alternative treatment barriers. The use of alternatives such as nanofiltration, ozonation followed by biological filtration, or activated carbon filtration avoids the problems associated with the production and disposal of RO concentrate, but they may allow a larger number of chemical contaminants to pass through the treatment process. In addition to the transformation products and solvents that pose risks in the RO-UV/H2O2 system, these alternative barriers are challenged by larger, polar compounds that are not amenable to oxidation, such as perfluoroalkyl acids and phosphate-containing flame retardants. To fully protect consumers who rely upon potable water reuse systems, new policies are needed to prevent chemicals that are difficult to remove during advanced treatment from entering the sewer system. By using knowledge about the composition of municipal wastewater and the mechanisms through which contaminants are removed during treatment, it should be possible to safely reuse municipal wastewater effluent as a drinking water source.

Published in:
Accounts Of Chemical Research, 52, 3, 615-622
Mar 01 2019

 Record created 2019-06-18, last modified 2019-06-25

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