Fate and effect of quaternary ammonium antimicrobial compounds on biological nitrogen removal within high-strength wastewater treatment systems

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Hajaya, Malek Ghaleb
Pavlostathis, Spyros G.
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High strength wastewater (HSWW) generated in food processing industries is characterized by high organic carbon and nitrogen content, and thus high oxygen demand. Biological nitrogen removal (BNR) is a technology widely used for the treatment of HSWW. Food processing facilities practice sanitation to keep food contact surfaces clean and pathogen-free. Benzalkonium chlorides (BACs) are cationic quaternary ammonium antimicrobial compounds (QACs) common in industrial antimicrobial formulations. BAC-bearing wastewater generated during sanitation applications in food processing facilities is combined with other wastewater streams and typically treated in BNR systems. The poor selectivity and target specificity of the antimicrobial BACs negatively impact the performance of BNR systems due to the susceptibility of BNR microbial populations to BAC. Objectives of the research were: a) assessment and quantification of the inhibitory effect of QACs on the microbial groups, which mediate BNR in HSWW treatment systems while treating QAC-bearing HSWW; b) evaluation of the degree and extent of the contribution of QAC adsorption, inhibition, and biotransformation on the fate and effect of QACs in BNR systems. A laboratory-scale, multi-stage BNR system was continuously fed with real poultry processing wastewater amended with a mixture of three benzalkonium chlorides. The nitrogen removal efficiency initially deteriorated at a BAC feed concentration of 5 mg/L due to complete inhibition of nitrification. However, the system recovered after 27 days of operation achieving high nitrogen removal efficiency, even after the feed BAC concentration was stepwise increased up to120 mg/L. Batch assays performed using the mixed liquors of the BNR system reactors, before, during, and post BAC exposure, showed that the development of BAC biotransformation capacity and the acquisition of resistance to BAC contributed to the recovery of nitrification and nitrogen removal. Kinetic analysis based on sub-models representing BNR processes showed that BAC inhibition of denitrification and nitrification is correlated with BAC liquid-phase and solid-phase concentrations, respectively. Simulations using a comprehensive mathematical BNR model developed for this research showed that BAC degradation and the level of nitrification inhibition by BAC were dynamic brought about by acclimation and enrichment of the heterotrophic and nitrifying microbial populations, respectively. The fate and effect of BACs in the BNR system were accurately described when the interactions between adsorption, inhibition, and resistance/biotransformation were considered within the conditions prevailing in each reactor. This work is the first study on the fate and effect of antimicrobial QACs in a continuous-flow, multi-stage BNR system, and the first study to quantify and report parameter values related to BAC inhibition of nitrification and denitrification. Results of this study enable the rational design and operation of BNR systems for the efficient treatment of QAC-bearing wastewater. The outcome of this research provides information presently lacking, supporting the continuous use of QACs as antimicrobial agents in food processing facilities, when and where needed, while avoiding any negative impacts on biological treatment systems and the environment.
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