Chemical fate and partitioning behavior of antibiotics in the aquatic environment: a review

Jamie Harrower*, Moyra McNaughtan, Colin Hunter, Rupert Hough, Zulin Zhang, Karin Helwig

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


Antibiotics in the aquatic environment is a major problem because of the emergence of antibiotic resistance. The long-term ecological impact on the aquatic environment is unknown. Many sources allow entry of antibiotics into the environment, including wastewater-treatment plants (WWTPs), agricultural runoff, hospital effluent, and landfill leachate. Concentrations of antibiotics in the aquatic environment vary significantly; studies have shown fluoroquinolones, tetracycline, macrolides, sulfonamides, and penicillins to reach 2900, 1500, 9700, 21 400, and 1600 ng L –1 in wastewater effluent samples, respectively. However, concentrations are highly variable between different countries and depend on several factors including seasonal variation, prescription, and WWTP operating procedures. Likewise, the reported concentrations that cause environmental effects vary greatly between antibiotics, even within the same class; however, this predicted concentration for the antibiotics considered was frequently <1000 ngL –1, indicating that when discharged into the environment along with treated effluent, these antibiotics have a potentially detrimental effect on the environment. Antibiotics are generally quite hydrophilic in nature; however, they can ionize in the aquatic environment to form charged structures, such as cations, zwitterions, and anions. Certain classes, particularly fluoroquinolones and tetracyclines, can adsorb onto solid matrices, including soils, sediment, and sludge, making it difficult to fully understand their chemical fate in the aquatic environment. The adsorption coefficient (K d) varies between different classes of antibiotics, with tetracyclines and fluoroquinolones showing the highest K d values. The K d values for fluoroquinolones, tetracyclines, macrolides, and sulfonamides have been reported as 54 600, 7600, 130, and 1.37 L kg –1, respectively. Factors such as pH of the environment, solid matrix (sediment/soil sludge), and ionic strength can influence the K d; therefore, several values exist in literature for the same compound. Environ Toxicol Chem 2021;40:3275–3298.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3275-3298
Number of pages24
JournalEnvironmental Toxicology and Chemistry
Issue number12
Early online date11 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • antibiotics
  • chemical behavior
  • fate and transport
  • environmental partitioning
  • environmental transport

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis
  • Environmental Chemistry


Dive into the research topics of 'Chemical fate and partitioning behavior of antibiotics in the aquatic environment: a review'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this