Pesticide exposure measured through sewage water

For the first time, scientists from the University of Amsterdam and a Spanish university have developed a method to quickly determine the pesticide exposure of people via the analysis of wastewater. The researchers published their work in the scientific journal Chemosphere.

For the first time, scientists from the University of Amsterdam and a Spanish university have quickly developed a method to determine people’s pesticide exposure via wastewater analysis. The researchers published their work in the scientific journal Chemosphere.

The analysis of sewage water and application of wastewater-based epidemiology is done for drugs and viruses. A reliable and accurate method has been added for tracing the exposure to pesticides of a population living near flower bulb fields.

Flower bulb and fruit cultivation

Chemical analyst and expert in wastewater-based epidemiology Lubertus Bijlsma said that “residents can ingest pesticides by breathing it in. After that ingestion, they end up in the human body. But the pesticides are also used in, for example, fruit cultivation and are part of their daily diet.”

Until recently, Bijlsma was a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and is now working at the University of Jaume I in the Spanish coastal city of Castellón. The new method is, therefore, a collaboration with this Spanish institution.

One measurement for 200,000 inhabitants

The reason for setting up the new analysis was the news in 2019 that residents of Dutch bulb fields had pesticide residues in their urine.

Bijlsma said that “we measure the so-called metabolites. They are substances created when the pesticide is converted into people’s bodies. Urine samples from people living close to and further away from a bulb field and scientific literature had shown which 14 metabolites remain after the human body has excreted them.”

But that method requires so much cooperation with residents that it cannot be used on a large scale.

“For example, you would have to take 200 measurements of urine samples for 200 residents. We examined which of the 14 substances from previous research are suitable for use in a faster and larger-scale method. Now, with one measurement, we can monitor for example 200,000 inhabitants of a middle large city. We can find out the extent to which they are dealing with pesticide exposure. We have now identified 10 metabolites and one pesticide that can be used for waste water research.”

Robust, validated method

The researchers are working with minimal amounts of poison found in sewage.

“We work at trace level i.e., nanograms per liter,” says Bijlsma. “It’s great that we were able to set up a robust, validated method from this in the lab via chromatography and mass spectrometry. In the near future we will be able to publish the results of an applied study on the exposure of residents of various areas in the Netherlands to pesticides, together with a risk analysis.”

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