Water Center, The


Date of this Version



Published in Water Environment Research, Volume 81, Number 10, pp. 941- 958. Copyright © 2009 Water Environment Federation. Used by permission.


Frequently studied environmental contaminants in agricultural systems include nutrients, sediments, and pesticides. These groups of contaminants typically occur at easily measured concentrations in surface run-off in agricultural watersheds. Nutrients, especially nitrogen, and pesticides have also been shown to impact ground water quality in areas susceptible to contamination. Less well-known are environmental impacts of newer classes of contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, steroids, antibiotic-resistance genes and prion proteins. These “emerging” contaminants clearly have potential to enter the environment and cause known or suspected adverse ecological or human health effects. Release of these contaminants to the environment often has occurred for quite some time, but methods for their detection at environmentally-relevant concentrations have only recently become available.

Evaluating the environmental fate and effects of emerging contaminants includes research on compounds such as surfactants, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, steroid hormones and other endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs), fire retardants, sunscreens, disinfection byproducts, new pesticides and pesticide metabolites, and naturally-occurring algal toxins. Detection of these contaminants in environmental matrices (water, wastewater, soils and sediments) is particularly challenging because of the low detection limits required, the complex nature of the samples, and difficulty in separating these compounds from interferences. New extraction and cleanup techniques, coupled with improvements in instrumental technologies provide the needed sensitivity and specificity for accurate measurement.

The objective of this paper is to review the literature published in 2008 evaluating the detection, fate, and occurrence of emerging contaminants, with a particular focus on emerging contaminants in agricultural systems. Relevant contaminants are EDCs (particularly hormones and anabolic steroids), antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals associated with wastewater, antibiotic resistance genes in bacteria and prions. Studies on pesticides and flame retardants are not reviewed unless they were evaluated in the same study.