Although the recovery and beneficial reuse of organic matter and nutrients from sludge represents an important move towards environmental sustainability, the accumulation of chemicals in biosolid-amended soils could pose serious environmental and human health risks. However, (eco)toxicological profiling of complex chemical mixtures in biosolids is currently limited. In particular, the effect of anaerobic digestion (AD), the most common stabilization process for sewage sludge, on the (eco)toxicity of those complex mixtures is poorly studied. In this work, we fill this research gap by applying an effect-based monitoring approach to screen sludge samples (n = 4) from a full-scale sewage treatment plant before and after conventional mesophilic (37 °C) AD using a battery of cell-based in vitro bioassays for four types of hormonal activity: estrogenic, androgenic, progestagenic and glucocorticoid activity, both in agonist and antagonist modes. We detected estrogenic, glucocorticoid and anti-progestagenic activity in all sludge samples. The glucocorticoid and anti-progestagenic activity remained mostly unchanged after AD treatment, but estrogenicity increased three-fold, likely as a result of bioactivation processes in the digestor. This study presents the first report on the concentration and fate of glucocorticoid and anti-progestagenic activity in AD. Future research should apply bioanalytical tools to a wider range of sludge samples to get a better understanding of the typical hormonal activity in sludge and develop effect-based trigger (EBT) values for biosolids to help interpret the risk posed by the hormonal activity detected in sludge.
- Anaerobic digestion
- Effect-based monitoring (EBM)
- Endocrine activity
- In-vitro bioassays
- Sewage sludge