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In vitro effects-based method and water quality screening model for use in pre- and post-distribution treated waters

January 23, 2021

Recent urban public water supply contamination events emphasize the importance of screening treated drinking water quality after distribution. In vitro bioassays, when run concurrently with analytical chemistry methods, are effective tools to evaluating the efficacy of water treatment processes and water quality. We tested 49 water samples representing the Chicago Department of Water Management service areas for estrogen, (anti)androgen, glucocorticoid receptor-activating contaminants and cytotoxicity. We present a tiered screening approach suitable to samples with anticipated low-level activity and initially tested all extracts for statistically identifiable endocrine activity; performing a secondary dilution-response analysis to determine sample EC50 and biological equivalency values (BioEq). Estrogenic activity was detected in untreated Lake Michigan intake water samples using mammalian (5/49; median: 0.21 ng E2Eq/L) and yeast cell (5/49; 1.78 ng E2Eq/L) bioassays. A highly sensitive (anti)androgenic activity bioassay was applied for the first time to water quality screening and androgenic activity was detected in untreated intake and treated pre-distribution samples (4/49; 0.93 ng DHTEq/L). No activity was identified above method detection limits in the yeast androgenic, mammalian anti-androgenic, and both glucocorticoid bioassays. Known estrogen receptor agonists were detected using HPLC/MS-MS (estrone: 0.72-1.4 ng/L; 17α-estradiol: 1.3-1.5 ng/L; 17β-estradiol: 1.4 ng/L; equol: 8.8 ng/L), however occurrence did not correlate with estrogenic bioassay results. Many studies have applied bioassays to water quality monitoring using only relatively small samples sets often collected from surface and/or wastewater effluent. However, to realistically adapt these tools to treated water quality monitoring, water quality managers must have the capacity to screen potentially hundreds of samples in short timeframes. Therefore, we provided a tiered screening model that increased sample screening speed, without sacrificing statistical stringency, and detected estrogenic and androgenic activity only in pre-distribution Chicago area samples.