Comprehensive screening of quaternary ammonium surfactants and ionic liquids in wastewater effluents and lake sediments

Sarah G. Pati, William A. Arnold

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Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) are widely applied as surfactants and biocides in cleaning and personal-care products. Because of incomplete removal during wastewater treatment, QACs are present in wastewater effluents, with which they are discharged into natural waters, where they accumulate in sediments. To assess the levels of QACs in aquatic environments, a liquid chromatography high-resolution mass spectrometry method using both target and suspect screening was developed. The water and sediment sample preparation, measurement, and data analysis workflow were optimized for 22 target compounds with a wide range of hydrophobicity, including ionic liquids that have potential use as solvents and QACs common in personal-care and sanitizing products. In wastewater effluents, average concentrations of all target and suspect QACs combined ranged from 0.4 μg L-1 to 6.6 μg L-1. Various homologs of benzylalkyldimethylammonium (BAC) and dialkyldimethylammonium (DADMAC) as well as the ionic liquid butylpyridinium and 15 suspect QACs were detected in at least one wastewater effluent sample. A spatial profile of sediment samples in a lake demonstrated potential inputs from both municipal wastewater effluent and agricultural sources for BACs. In sediment cores, two distinct trends of temporal QAC accumulation were observed. In lakes with large watersheds and mixed domestic and industrial wastewater sources (Lake Pepin and Duluth Harbor), peak concentrations of QACs were found at depths corresponding to deposition in the 1980s and decreases after this time are attributed to improved wastewater treatment and source control. In a smaller lake with predominantly domestic wastewater inputs (Lake Winona), concentrations of QACs increased slowly over time until today.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)430-441
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science: Processes and Impacts
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2020


PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article

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