A prescription for drug-free rivers: uptake of pharmaceuticals by a widespread streamside willow

Carmen Franks, David Pearce, Stewart Rood



Following human excretion and limited removal with wastewater treatment, pharmaceuticals are accumulating in rivers worldwide. These chemicals can challenge the health of fish and aquatic organisms and since rivers provide drinking water sources, there is concern for cumulative exposure to humans. In this study, we discovered that sandbar willow (Salix exigua), a predominant riparian shrub along streams throughout North America, has the capacity to quickly remove pharmaceuticals from aqueous solutions. Our study tracked [3 H]- or [14C]-labeled substances including 17α-ethynylestradiol (EE2), a synthetic estrogen in oral contraceptives; the antihypertensive, diltiazem (DTZ); and the anti-anxiety drug, diazepam (DZP); and for comparison, atrazine (ATZ), a root-absorbed herbicide. In growth chambers, willow saplings removed 40–80% of the substances from solutions in 24 h. Following uptake, the EE2 and DTZ were retained within the roots, while DZP and ATZ were partly passed on to the shoots. The absorbed EE2 was unextractable and apparently bound to the root tissue, while DTZ, DZP, and ATZ remained largely soluble (extractable). The uptake and translocation of the pharmaceuticals, reflected in the transpiration stream and root concentration factors, were reasonably predicted from their physicochemical properties, including octanol-water partitioning coefficients. These findings suggest the removal of pharmaceuticals as an unrecognized ecosystem service provided by riparian vegetation and especially the inundation tolerant sandbar willow. This encourages the conservation of riparian willows that line riverbanks, to remove pharmaceuticals and other contaminants. This phytoremediation also encourages the preservation of complex, braided channels and islands, which increase the extent of stream shorelines and riparian willows.