Retinoic acid (RA) receptor (RAR) agonists are potential teratogens to various vertebrates. Their contamination has been detected in municipal wastewater in different countries. This study involved field investigations and laboratory batch treatment experiments to elucidate the removal characteristics by activated sludge treatment of RAs (all-trans RA and 13-cis RA) and 4-oxo-RAs (4-oxo-all-trans RA and 4-oxo-13-cis RA), which were identified as major RAR agonists in municipal wastewater. Results obtained in this study show that currently employed activated sludge treatments can remove RAs, 4-oxo-RAs and overall RAR agonist contamination effectively from municipal wastewater in general, although high RAR agonistic activity might sometimes remain in the effluent. Laboratory experiments revealed that RAs were removed rapidly from the aqueous phase by adsorption to the sludge, after which they were removed further by biological and/or chemical degradation. Aside from adsorption to the sludge, 4-oxo-RAs were also apparently removed by biological and chemical degradation. Biodegradation contributed greatly to the removal. Results of additional experiments indicated that novel non-identifiable RAR agonists can occur through the biodegradation of 4-oxo-RAs by activated sludge and that they can persist for a long period.

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