The occurrence of toxic cyanobacteria in surface waters and their impact on drinking water treatment plants (WTPs) is a growing, global concern. The main objective of this paper was to assess the presence of cyanobacteria in surface water sources and associated cell removal efficiency in full-scale WTPs across the world. Previously unpublished data was collected from WTPs experiencing cyanobacterial blooms in either their managed surface waters or recreational waters. In total, data were collected from 31 surface water sources and 21 WTPs in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The most commonly detected species were identified in both the surface waters, including Microcystis, Anabaena, Nostoc, Oscillatoria, and Planktolyngbya, and water treatment plant intakes, including Microcystis, Cylindrospermopsis, Anabaena, Pseudanabaena, and Aphanizomenon. In the intakes, cyanotoxins and taste and odor (T&O) compounds frequently co-occurred (80%) as did multiple cyanotoxins (39%). Conventional treatment saw a wide range of removal depending on the density of cells, species, and metabolites. Although more than 28% of sampling events displayed negligible or even negative removals of metabolites or cells due to accumulation within the clarifier, filtration, or water recycling, the presence of multiple treatment barriers, particularly advanced treatments like granular activated carbon and nanofiltration, allowed for the cells and their metabolites of concern to be removed to below guideline values. During treatment, total microcystins were often removed without releasing their intracellular fraction, whereas cylindrospermopsin, geosmin, and 2-MIB were commonly detected as entirely extracellular at the plant's intake. The maximum tolerable cell (MTC) counts for cyanotoxin- or T&O-producing cells were calculated using guideline values, average removal efficiency, and the average cell quota derived from data. The 21 WTPs in this work were found to be able to tolerate approximately 74,000 cells/mL for microcystins, 8,000 cells/mL for cylindrospermopsin, and 1,200 cells/mL for geosmin and 2-MIB before exceeding guideline values. These levels provide guidance for water treatment plant operators to assess the potential risk associated with cells capable of producing cyanotoxins or T&O compounds.


  • Distinguish between the abundance and presence of cyanobacteria.

  • Assess the performance of a full-scale treatment process for the successful removal of cyanobacteria and their associated metabolites.

  • Determine the range of cyanotoxin or T&O compound concentration per cell.

Graphical Abstract

Graphical Abstract
Graphical Abstract
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Supplementary data