A risk-based approach for developing standards for irrigation with reclaimed water

Mads Troldborg*, Dominic Duckett, Richard Allan, Emily Hastings, Rupert L. Hough

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
26 Downloads (Pure)


A generalised quantitative risk assessment (QRA) is developed to assess the potential harm to human health resulting from irrigation with reclaimed water. The QRA is conducted as a backward calculation starting from a pre-defined acceptable risk level at the receptor point (defined as an annual infection risk of 10-4 for pathogens and by reference doses (RfD) for chemical hazards) and results in an estimate of the corresponding acceptable concentration levels of the given hazards in the effluent. In this way the QRA is designed to inform the level of water treatment required to achieve an acceptable risk level and help establish reclaimed water quality standards. The QRA considers the exposure of human receptors to microbial and chemical hazards in the effluent through various exposure pathways and routes depending on the specific irrigation scenario. By considering multiple pathways and routes, a number of key aspects relevant to estimating human exposure to recycled water can be accounted for, including irrigation and crop handling practices (e.g., non-edible vs edible, spray vs. drip, withholding time) and volumes consumed (directly vs indirectly). The QRA relies on a large number of inputs, many of which were found to be highly uncertain. A possibilistic approach, based on fuzzy set theory, was used to propagate the uncertain input values through the QRA model to estimate the possible range of hazard concentrations that are deemed acceptable/safe for reclaimed water irrigation. Two scenarios were considered: amenity irrigation and irrigation of ready-to-eat food crops, and calculations were carried out for six example hazards (norovirus, Cryptosporidium, cadmium, lead, PCB118 and naphthalene) and using UK-specific input values. The human health risks associated with using reclaimed water for amenity irrigation were overall deemed low, i.e. the calculated acceptable concentration levels for most of the selected hazards were generally far greater than levels typically measured in effluent from wastewater treatment plants; however the predicted acceptable concentration levels for norovirus and Cryptosporidium suggested that disinfection by UV may be required before use. It was found that stricter concentration standards were required for hazards that are more strongly bound to soil and/or are more toxic/infectious. It was also found that measures that reduce the amount of effluent directly ingested by the receptor would significantly reduce the risks (by up to 2 orders of magnitude for the two pathogens). The results for the food crop irrigation scenario showed that stricter concentration standards are required to ensure the effluent is safe to use. For pathogens, the dominant exposure route was found to be ingestion of effluent captured on the surface of the crops indicating that risks could be significantly reduced by restricting irrigation to the non-edible parts of the crop. The results also showed that the exposure to some organic compounds and heavy metals through plant uptake and attached soil particles could be high and possibly pose unacceptable risk to human health. For both scenarios, we show that the predicted acceptable concentration levels are associated with large uncertainty and discuss the implications this has for defining quality standards and how the uncertainty can be reduced.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)372-384
Number of pages13
JournalWater Research
Early online date25 Sep 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


  • agricultural irrigation/methods
  • caliciviridae infections/transmission
  • conservation of water resources
  • crops, agricultural
  • cryptosporidiosis/transmission
  • cryptosporidium
  • humans
  • metals, heavy/toxicity
  • models, theoretical
  • naphthalenes/toxicity
  • norovirus
  • organic chemicals
  • polychlorinated biphenyls/toxicity
  • risk assessment
  • soil/chemistry
  • uncertainty
  • waste disposal, fluid/methods
  • waste water/microbiology
  • water
  • water purification
  • water quality/standards


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