A sensitive and reliable method using liquid chromatography-electrospray tandem mass spectrometry has been developed and validated for the trace determination of beta-lactam antibiotics in natural and wastewater matrices. Water samples were enriched by solid-phase extraction. The analytes included amoxicillin (AMOX), ampicillin (AMP), oxacillin (OXA), cloxacillin (CLOX) and cephapirin (CEP). Average recoveries of beta-lactams (BLs) in fortified samples were generally above 75% (except amoxicillin) with the standard deviations lower than 10% in water matrices. Amoxicillin was not quantified due to poor recovery (less than 40%) in the investigated water matrices. Matrix effects were found to be minimal when measuring these compounds in water matrices. The accuracy, within- and between-run precision of the assay fell within acceptable ranges of 15% absolute. The method detection limit (MDL) was estimated to range between 8 and 10 ng/L in surface water, 13 and 18 ng/L in the influent and 8 and 15 ng/L in the effluent from a wastewater treatment plant. A large number of actual water samples were analyzed using this method in order to evaluate the occurrence of the beta-lactams in a river and a wastewater treatment plant in northern Colorado. Most of the samples were negative for all analytes. These compounds were found at 15-17 ng/L in the three influent samples and at 9-11 ng/L in three surface water samples out of a total of 200 samples. This indicates that contamination by beta-lactam antibiotics is of minor importance to the small mixed-watershed.
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