The fate of detergent surfactants in the sewer can be studied both in laboratory tests and in field experiments. The laboratory studies can be used to determine the rate of disappearance of a test molecule as a function of residence time and estimate its half-life in a given habitat. In addition, important information can be obtained on the mechanism of degradation. Field studies can determine the actual environmental concentrations of surfactants in raw sewage which can then be compared with the expected concentration based on consumption volumes. The difference between the measured and predicted concentration provides an estimate for the disappearance of the test chemical during its travel in the sewer and confirms the results of the laboratory tests.

This paper focuses on the fate of a number of important representative anionic, nonionic and cationic surfactants, in the sewer. The results of laboratory die-away studies showed that, in general, the half-life for disappearance in the sewer was in the order of hours for Fatty Alcohol Ethoxylate (AE), Fatty Alcohol Ethoxy Sulphate (AES) and Di-Ethyl-Ester Di-methyl-Ammonium Chloride (DEEDMAC). These laboratory findings for AES were confirmed by monitoring actual raw sewage reaching municipal sewage treatment plants. In addition, a field study demonstrated that the concentration of glucose amides (GA) is considerably reduced during its travel in the sewer. These complementary laboratory and field studies provide key information for the safety assessment of surfactants. They demonstrate that the concentration of surfactants can be significantly reduced in the sewer resulting in a rapid reduction of the environmental loading, which is particularly important in environmental situations where inadequate or no sewage treatment exists.