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American Chemical Society

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Environmental Science & Technology

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DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.3c04413


Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) are used in consumer and industrial products, including disinfectants. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, disinfectant use has increased, purportedly increasing loads to wastewater treatment plants and the environment. To understand how the increased usage has affected QAC loadings to treatment plants and to determine how effectively plants remove QACs from liquid effluent that is discharged to surface and groundwaters, influent and effluent wastewater samples were collected from four treatment plants (treatment capacities < 5 MGD to > 100 MGD) for 21 months beginning in May 2020. Influent QAC concentrations were hundreds of μg/L and effluent QAC concentrations were < 1 μg/L, corresponding to an average removal of 98% from all four plants. The most prevalent QACs in influent were those used most commonly in disinfectants, specifically benzylalkyldimethylammonium compounds (BACs) and short-chain dialkyldimethylammonium compounds (DADMACs), and influent levels of these compounds were correlated with QAC sales. Prior to this study, ethylbenzylalkyldimethylammonium compounds (EtBACs) had not been studied, and they comprised 13 ± 6% of QACs in influent. While removal was high at all plants, low μg/L concentrations were still continuously discharged into the environment. For QACs with equivalent alkyl chain lengths, those with aromatic substituents (BACs and EtBACs) appear to be removed more effectively than those with only alkyl chains (DADMACs).


Accepted version. Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 57, No. 48 (December 5, 2023): 20148-20158. DOI. © 2023 American Chemical Society. Used with permission.

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