Photodegradation of a mixture of five pharmaceuticals commonly found in wastewater: Experimental and computational analysis

Sanjeeb Mohapatra, Daniel Snow, Patrick Shea, Andy Gálvez-Rodríguez, Manish Kumar, Lokesh P. Padhye, Suparna Mukherji

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Photochemical transformation of pharmaceuticals plays an important role in their natural attenuation, especially in lagoon-based wastewater treatment plants and surface waters receiving substantial sunlight. In this study, the photodegradation of five important pharmaceuticals was studied in samples obtained from a wastewater treatment plant and surface water sources. Batch photodegradation studies for a mixture of pharmaceuticals (diclofenac, sulfamethoxazole, acetaminophen, carbamazepine and gemfibrozil) were carried out in a photochemical reactor. Multiple aliquots of samples removed from the reactor during the experiment were analyzed through high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) coupled to a photodiode array (PDA) detector. Intermediate products formed due to photodegradation were identified by ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with a time-of-flight mass spectrometry (UHPLC-MS/MS). Diclofenac and sulfamethoxazole were found to undergo direct photodegradation due to strong light absorption, whereas the indirect route of photosensitized degradation in the presence of dissolved organic matter (DOM) and model humic acid was significant for acetaminophen, carbamazepine, and gemfibrozil. The reactive radicals such as hydroxyl (OH), singlet oxygen (1O2) and excited states of DOM (*DOM) were predominantly responsible for the indirect photodegradation of acetaminophen, gemfibrozil and carbamazepine, respectively. Computational analysis revealed that chlorine and carbon atoms belonging to the benzene ring of diclofenac were more reactive to radical attack. Sulfamethoxazole photodegradation occurred through oxidation of the NH2 group. Acetaminophen was more susceptible to electrophilic radical attack at the O-11, and N-7 positions and carbon atoms ortho to the phenolic oxygen and the amine group. The double bonds between C-7, C-8 and C-13 were the most reactive sites for carbamazepine that participated in the phototransformation pathway. Organic matter plays a critical role in the photodegradation of emerging contaminants. The coupling of DFT calculations with UHPLC-MS/MS analysis provided insights on key functional groups participating in the phototransformation pathway. Thus, both parent pharmaceuticals and the photodegradation intermediates should be considered during wastewater treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number114659
JournalEnvironmental Research
StatePublished - Jan 1 2023


  • Density functional theory
  • Intermediates
  • Photodegradation
  • Sediment
  • Wastewater

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • General Environmental Science


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