Untreated sludge from small-scale on-site domestic wastewater treatment systems (septic tanks) was spiked with 20, 60 and 100 nm silver nanoparticles (Ag-NPs) to investigate Ag-NP behaviour in these systems that are widely distributed in rural areas. In addition, the release of Ag-NPs from a previously spiked clay-rich loam reference soil (LUFA 2.4) was evaluated, in the presence and absence of untreated sludge, to simulate the common practice of sludge disposal by spreading on agricultural land. Single particle ICP-MS was used to determine Ag-NP size distribution and the results were compared with total Ag (Ag-NP and ionic) measured in acid digested samples. As documented previously for large municipal scale wastewater treatment plants, Ag-NPs are found to be overwhelmingly (~98%) retained in the sludge in these small-scale systems. The Ag-NP retention efficiency on the LUFA reference soil amended with sludge is approximately 10 times greater than that of LUFA soil alone (in the absence of sludge). For soil spiked with 60 nm Ag-NPs, the calculated average diameter of Ag-NPs in the supernatant, after 24 h was 45 ± 3 nm (dissolution rate 7.2E-06 mol/m·h for 60 nm Ag-NP), smaller than that of supernatant from the combined sludge/soil system (52 ± 2 nm), indicating lower Ag-NP dissolution rates in the sludge-amended soil. This study provides new information about the leachability of Ag-NPs from septic tank sludge and suggests that the effluent and sludge from septic tanks are potential sources of both nano- and dissolved ionic-Ag to environmental waters.
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