Which Micropollutants in Water Environments Deserve More Attention Globally?

Yun Yang, Xiangru Zhang*, Jingyi Jiang, Jiarui Han, Wanxin Li, Xiaoyan Li, Kenneth Mei Yee Leung, Shane A. Snyder, Pedro J.J. Alvarez

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

214 Citations (Scopus)


Increasing chemical pollution of aquatic environments is a growing concern with global relevance. A large number of organic chemicals are termed as “micropollutants” due to their low concentrations, and long-term exposure to micropollutants may pose considerable risks to aquatic organisms and human health. In recent decades, numerous treatment methods and technologies have been proposed to remove micropollutants in water, and typically several micropollutants were chosen as target pollutants to evaluate removal efficiencies. However, it is often unclear whether their toxicity and occurrence levels and frequencies enable them to contribute significantly to the overall chemical pollution in global aquatic environments. This review intends to answer an important lingering question: Which micropollutants or class of micropollutants deserve more attention globally and should be removed with higher priority? Different risk-based prioritization approaches were used to address this question. The risk quotient (RQ) method was found to be a feasible approach to prioritize micropollutants in a large scale due to its relatively simple assessment procedure and extensive use. A total of 83 prioritization case studies using the RQ method in the past decade were compiled, and 473 compounds that were selected by screening 3466 compounds of three broad classes (pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), pesticides, and industrial chemicals) were found to have risks (RQ > 0.01). To determine the micropollutants of global importance, we propose an overall risk surrogate, that is, the weighted average risk quotient (WARQ). The WARQ integrates the risk intensity and frequency of micropollutants in global aquatic environments to achieve a more comprehensive priority determination. Through metadata analysis, we recommend a ranked list of 53 micropollutants, including 36 PPCPs (e.g., sulfamethoxazole and ibuprofen), seven pesticides (e.g., heptachlor and diazinon), and 10 industrial chemicals (e.g., perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and 4-nonylphenol) for risk management and remediation efforts. One caveat is that the ranked list of global importance does not consider transformation products of micropollutants (including disinfection byproducts) and new forms of pollutants (including antibiotic resistance genes and microplastics), and this list of global importance may not be directly applicable to a specific region or country. Also, it needs mentioning that there might be no best answer toward this question, and hopefully this review can act as a small step toward a better answer.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-29
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • PPCPs
  • micropollutants
  • prioritization
  • risk assessment
  • risk quotient


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