Evaluating Contaminants of Emerging Concern as Tracers of Wastewater From Septic Systems

Publication Date


Document Type



Bacterial and nutrient contamination from anthropogenic sources impacts fresh and marine waters, reducing water quality and restricting recreational and commercial activities. In many cases the source of this contamination is ambiguous, and a tracer or set of tracers linking contamination to source would be valuable. In this work, the effectiveness of utilizing a suite of Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) as tracers of bacteria from human septic system effluent is investigated. Field sampling was performed at more than 20 locations over approximately 18 months and analyzed for a suite of CECs and fecal coliform bacteria. The sampling locations included seeps and small freshwater discharges to the shoreline. Sites were selected and grouped according to level of impact by septic systems as determined by previous field sampling programs. A subset of selected locations had been positively identified as being impacted by effluent from failing septic systems through dye testing. The CECs were selected based on their predominant use, their frequency of use, and putative fate and transport properties. In addition, two rounds of focused sampling were performed at selected sites to characterize short-term variations in CEC and fecal coliform concentrations, and to evaluate environmental persistence following source correction activities. The results indicate that a suite of common use compounds are suitable as generalized tracers of bacterial contamination from septic systems and that fate and transport properties are important in tracer selection. Highly recalcitrant or highly labile compounds likely follow different loss profiles in the subsurface compared to fecal bacteria and are not suitable tracers. The use of more than one tracer compound is recommended due to source variability of septic systems and to account for variations in the subsurface condition. In addition, concentrations of some CECs were measured in receiving waters at levels which suggested the potential for environmental harm, indicating that the possible risk presented from these sources warrants further investigation. © 2016 Elsevier Ltd.

Publication Title

Water Research



First Page


Last Page




Publisher Policy

post-print (with 6 month embargo)

This document is currently not available here.

Find in your library