Natural organic matter (NOM) can influence pharmaceutical adsorption onto granular activated carbon (GAC) by direct adsorption competition and pore blocking. However, in the literature there is limited information on which of these mechanisms is more important and how this is related to NOM and pharmaceutical properties. Adsorption batch experiments were carried out in ultrapure, waste- and surface water and fresh and NOM preloaded GAC was used. Twenty-one pharmaceuticals were selected with varying hydrophobicity and with neutral, negative or positive charge. The influence of NOM competition and pore blocking could not be separated. However, while reduction in surface area was similar for both preloaded GACs, up to 50% lower pharmaceutical removal was observed on wastewater preloaded GAC. This was attributed to higher hydrophobicity of wastewater NOM, indicating that NOM competition may influence pharmaceutical removal more than pore blocking. Preloaded GAC was negatively charged, which influenced removal of charged pharmaceuticals significantly. At a GAC dose of 6.7 mg/L, negatively charged pharmaceuticals were removed for 0–58%, while removal of positively charged pharmaceuticals was between 32–98%. Charge effects were more pronounced in ultrapure water, as it contained no ions to shield the surface charge. Solutes with higher log D could compete better with NOM, resulting in higher removal.
Keywords: activated carbon, charge interaction, NOM, pharmaceuticals, preloaded carbon