In this paper we report on the performances of full-scale conventional activated sludge (CAS) treatment and two pilot-scale membrane bioreactors (MBRs) in eliminating various pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs) belonging to different therapeutic groups and with diverse physico-chemical properties. Both aqueous and solid phases were analysed for the presence of 31 pharmaceuticals included in the analytical method. The most ubiquitous contaminants in the sewage water were analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs ibuprofen (14.6–31.3 μg/L) and acetaminophen (7.1–11.4 μg/L), antibiotic ofloxacin (0.89–31.7 μg/L), lipid regulators gemfibrozil (2.0–5.9 μg/L) and bezafibrate (1.9–29.8 μg/L), β-blocker atenolol (0.84–2.8 μg/L), hypoglycaemic agent glibenclamide (0.12–15.9 μg/L) and a diuretic hydrochlorothiazide (2.3–4.8 μg/L). Also, several pharmaceuticals such as ibuprofen, ketoprofen, diclofenac, ofloxacin and azithromycin were detected in sewage sludge at concentrations up to 741.1, 336.3, 380.7, 454.7 and 299.6 ng/g dry weight. Two pilot-scale MBRs exhibited enhanced elimination of several pharmaceutical residues poorly removed by the CAS treatment (e.g., mefenamic acid, indomethacin, diclofenac, propyphenazone, pravastatin, gemfibrozil), whereas in some cases more stable operation of one of the MBR reactors at prolonged SRT proved to be detrimental for the elimination of some compounds (e.g., β-blockers, ranitidine, famotidine, erythromycin). Moreover, the anti-epileptic drug carbamazepine and diuretic hydrochlorothiazide by-passed all three treatments investigated.
Furthermore, sorption to sewage sludge in the MBRs as well as in the entire treatment line of a full-scale WWTP is discussed for the encountered analytes. Among the pharmaceuticals encountered in sewage sludge, sorption to sludge could be a relevant removal pathway only for several compounds (i.e., mefenamic acid, propranolol, and loratidine). Especially in the case of loratidine the experimentally determined sorption coefficients (Kds) were in the range 2214–3321 L/kg (mean). The results obtained for the solid phase indicated that MBR wastewater treatment yielding higher biodegradation rate could reduce the load of pollutants in the sludge. Also, the overall output load in the aqueous and solid phase of the investigated WWTP was calculated, indicating that none of the residual pharmaceuticals initially detected in the sewage sludge were degraded during the anaerobic digestion. Out of the 26 pharmaceutical residues passing through the WWTP, 20 were ultimately detected in the treated sludge that is further applied on farmland.