Measuring Micropollutants in Canberra’s Waterways – Using Passive Samplers

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Micropollutants are chemicals that include pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs, such as hormones) and disinfection by-products Micropollutants are of concern in the environment because even at very low levels they may affect organisms that live within the water ecosystem or those that consume the water (including humans). Micropollutants typically occur at very low concentrations and require special analytical methods to detect them. The challenge is to measure these low level pollutants using a novel method – passive sampling.


In many cases, micropollutants of concern in the environment occur at concentrations at or below normal instrumental detection limits. This limits the usefulness of a typical one litre grab sample of water for analysis. One way to overcome this difficulty is to use ‘passive samplers’ - units which are placed within the waterway and absorb chemicals of interest over a period of time – typically weeks to months. This increases the ability to measure contaminant concentrations, by pre-concentrating the micropollutants. The resulting concentrated sample is returned to the laboratory for analysis.

The accumulated micropollutant contained in the passive sampler reflects a time-weighted average for the duration of deployment. Time-weighted data incorporates the variability in pollutant concentration into a single figure, and provides an indication of pollutant load.

Passive samplers were deployed at four sites within waterways of the A.C.T. One litre grab samples were also collected from the same location at the conclusion of the passive sampler deployment and used for calibration and method comparison.


The deployed passive samplers were returned to the laboratory for analysis using liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS MS).

Out of 45 tested micropollutants (in the categories of pharmaceuticals/personal care products and steroids), 13 were found to be present across the four sites. These micropollutants included antibiotics, caffeine, hormones, an epilepsy treatment drug, valium, beta blockers, a migraine treatment drug and cancer treatment drugs.

None of the chemicals identified using the passive sampler techniques were detected within the one litre grab samples. As such passive samplers are shown to be a useful tool in determining the presence of low concentration micropollutants in natural waterways.

This research project was conducted with funding from ACTEW Water’s Applied Research and Development program.

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