Natural Photosensitizers in Constructed Unit Process Wetlands: Photochemical Characterization and Inactivation of Pathogen Indicator Organisms

Jannis Wenk, Mi T. Nguyen, Kara L. Nelson

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Dissolved organic matter (DOM) is a natural photosensitizer that contributes to the inactivation of microbial pathogens. In constructed treatment wetlands with open water areas DOM can promote sunlight disinfection of wastewater effluent, but a better understanding of DOM spectroscopic and photochemical properties and how they are impacted by different unit process wetlands is needed to inform design. The goals of this study were: (1) to investigate whether DOM isolates realistically represent the photochemistry of the source DOM in its original water and (2) to observe how changes of DOM along a treatment wetland affect its photochemistry, including pathogen inactivation. A pilot scale unit process wetland was studied that consisted of three different cells (open water, cattail, and bulrush) fed by secondary wastewater effluent. DOM was isolated using solid-phase extraction (SPE), photochemically characterized, and compared to the original water samples and standard DOMs. For MS2 coliphage, a virus indicator, the most efficient photosensitizer was the wastewater DOM isolated from the influent of the wetland, while for the bacterial indicator Enterococcus faecalis, inactivation results were comparable across wetland isolates. SPE resulted in isolation of 47% to 59% of whole water DOM and enriched for colored DOM. Singlet oxygen precursors were efficiently isolated, while some excited triplet state precursors remained in the extraction discharge. DOM processing indicators such as SUVA254, SUVA280, and spectral slopes including E2/E3 ratios were reflected in the isolates. Photoinactivation of MS2 was significantly lower in both the reconstituted water samples and isolates compared to the original water sample, possibly due to disturbance of the trans-molecular integrity of DOM molecules by SPE that affects distance between MS2 and DOM sites with locally higher singlet oxygen production. For E. faecalis, results were similar in original water samples and isolates. Higher sorption of DOM to E. faecalis was roughly correlated with higher photoinactivation rates. To enhance sunlight disinfection in unit process wetlands, there is no advantage to placing open water cells after vegetated cells, as passage through the vegetated cells led to increased light absorption and lower singlet oxygen and triplet-state quantum yields and steady state concentrations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7724-7735
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number13
Early online date31 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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