Aging microplastics enhances the adsorption of pharmaceuticals in freshwater

Diana S Moura, Carlos J Pestana, Colin F Moffat, Nikoletta Gkoulemani, Jianing Hui, John T S Irvine, Linda A Lawton

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Plastic pollution is an increasing environmental concern. Pollutants such as microplastics (< 5 mm) and pharmaceuticals often co-exist in the aquatic environment. The current study aimed to elucidate the interaction of pharmaceuticals with microplastics and ascertain how the process of photo-oxidation of microplastics affected the adsorption of the pharmaceuticals. To this end, a mixture containing ibuprofen, carbamazepine, fluoxetine, venlafaxine and ofloxacin (16 μmol L−1 each) was placed in contact with one of six either virgin or aged microplastic types. The virgin microplastics were acquired commercially and artificially aged in the laboratory. Polypropylene, polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polyamide, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride microparticles at two sizes described as small (D50 < 35 μm) and large (D50 95–157 μm) were evaluated. Results demonstrated that the study of virgin particles may underestimate the adsorption of micropollutants onto microplastics. For virgin particles, only small microparticles of polypropylene, polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and both sizes of polyamide adsorbed pharmaceuticals. Aging the microplastics increased significantly the adsorption of pharmaceuticals by microplastics. Fluoxetine adsorbed onto all aged microplastics, from 18 % (large polyethylene terephthalate) to 99 % (small polypropylene). The current investigation highlights the potential of microplastics to act as a vector for pharmaceuticals in freshwater, especially after aging.
Original languageEnglish
Article number169467
Number of pages14
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date30 Dec 2023
Publication statusPublished - 20 Feb 2024


  • Photo-oxidation
  • Carboxyl index
  • Weathering
  • Polymer
  • Water pollution


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