OPEN PloS one | 19 Dec 2013
J Spoelstra, SL Schiff and SJ Brown
Artificial sweeteners have been widely incorporated in human food products for aid in weight loss regimes, dental health protection and dietary control of diabetes. Some of these widely used compounds can pass non-degraded through wastewater treatment systems and are subsequently discharged to groundwater and surface waters. Measurements of artificial sweeteners in rivers used for drinking water production are scarce. In order to determine the riverine concentrations of artificial sweeteners and their usefulness as a tracer of wastewater at the scale of an entire watershed, we analyzed samples from 23 sites along the entire length of the Grand River, a large river in Southern Ontario, Canada, that is impacted by agricultural activities and urban centres. Municipal water from household taps was also sampled from several cities within the Grand River Watershed. Cyclamate, saccharin, sucralose, and acesulfame were found in elevated concentrations despite high rates of biological activity, large daily cycles in dissolved oxygen and shallow river depth. The maximum concentrations that we measured for sucralose (21 µg/L), cyclamate (0.88 µg/L), and saccharin (7.2 µg/L) are the highest reported concentrations of these compounds in surface waters to date anywhere in the world. Acesulfame persists at concentrations that are up to several orders of magnitude above the detection limit over a distance of 300 km and it behaves conservatively in the river, recording the wastewater contribution from the cumulative population in the basin. Acesulfame is a reliable wastewater effluent tracer in rivers. Furthermore, it can be used to assess rates of nutrient assimilation, track wastewater plume dilution, separate human and animal waste contributions and determine the relative persistence of emerging contaminants in impacted watersheds where multiple sources confound the usefulness of other tracers. The effects of artificial sweeteners on aquatic biota in rivers and in the downstream Great Lakes are largely unknown.
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