Municipal wastewater treatment plants play a crucial role in reducing the microbial and pathogen load of human wastes before the end-products are discharged to surface waters (final effluent) or land spread (biosolids). This study investigated the occurrence frequency of noroviruses, Enterococcus faecalis and Enterococcus faecium in influent, final effluent and biosolids from four secondary wastewater treatment plants in northwestern Ireland (plants A–D) and observed the seasonal and spatial variation of the plant treatment efficiencies in the pathogen removals. It was noted that norovirus genogroup II was more resistant to the treatment processes than the norovirus genogroup I and other active viral particles, especially those in the discharge effluents. The percolating biofilm system at plant D resulted in better effluent quality than in the extended aerated activated sludge systems (plants A and B); primary biosolids produced at plant D may pose a higher health risk to the locals. The spread of norovirus genogroup II into the environment, irrespective of the wastewater treatment process, coincides with its national clinical predominance over norovirus genogroup I. This study provides important evidence that municipal wastewater treatment plants not only achieve pathogen removal but can also be the source of environmental pathogen contamination.

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