Drug Waste is Polluting our Rivers, and We Need to Act

A new study finds that many of the world’s rivers have environmentally damaging levels of pharmaceuticals in them, a problem that could escalate rapidly in just a few decades, if we don’t act.

The research, presented at the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna earlier this month, took a drug known as diclofenac, a commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory, as a starting point.

This drug is prescribed throughout the world, and it has been identified as a significant threat to our wildlife. For example, use of it in animal medicine has directly led to a sub-species of vulture declining so rapidly they are now at the brink of extinction.

Because our water treatment facilities can’t filter particular pharmaceuticals, scientists were able to use diclofenac as what’s known as a proxy.

Essentially, whatever the levels of diclofenac in our water, it is likely that a comparable level of other common, but potentially damaging, drugs might be in our waterways, including but not limited to things like analgesics, endocrine disruptors, antibiotics and more.

“Global consumption of diclofenac tops 2,400 tonnes a year. Several hundred tonnes remain in human waste, and only a small fraction – about 7% – of that is filtered out by treatment plants,” The Guardian explains, “Another 20% is absorbed by ecosystems, and the rest go into oceans.”

Armed with this knowledge, the research team then constructed a computer model that used various linked factors such as population size, drug sales and expected waste output to determine how much diclofenac might be in our waterways.

They compared that data to real-world data gathered at select points across Europe, then looked at safety limits set by bodies like the European Union.

The study discovered that more than 10,000 km of rivers across the globe have diclofenac concentrations far above the 100 nanograms per liter target set by the EU.

It’s highly likely, therefore, that other drugs are also getting into our waterways at unacceptably high levels, something that other, separate research has already indicated. This leads to hormone changes in aquatic animals and more.

What’s more, the researchers predict that the threat drug waste poses to our environment could increase by 65 percent by the year 2050 unless we act now.

“With this model, we are able to predict current and future dilution of pharmaceuticals in freshwater ecosystems, taking into account scenarios of climate change and population growth,” Researcher Francesco Bregoli at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands said in a press release. ”We found out that technological improvements alone will not even be enough to recover from the current concentration levels. If a substantial consumption reduction is not implemented, a large part of the global river ecosystems will not be sufficiently secured.”

It’s worth highlighting that most of the data points for diclofenac were taken from places where filtration — while obviously not adequate — does at least occur as a standard step in water sanitation.

The levels of toxicity in some regions of India, Asia and parts of North Africa are likely far higher due to the relative high cost of sewage treatment making it expensive to build and maintain sanitation plants. That means the threat of toxicity to the environment in these areas is a pressing concern.

So how do we tackle this issue?

As the researchers have said, it is unlikely that technological advance alone will be enough to reduce this problem.

One area where we could take action is veterinary medicine. Farm animals are given a significant amount of drugs in order to prop up the factory farming industry. This includes but isn’t limited to antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.

By realigning farming practices to a more sustainable and less intensive model, we might be able to make a dent in this pollution problem.

What’s clear, however, is this is something we need to take action on sooner rather than later.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

55 comments

KimJ ManyIssues
KimJ ManyIssues18 days ago

Thank you

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KimJ ManyIssues
KimJ ManyIssues18 days ago

Thank you

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KimJ ManyIssues
KimJ ManyIssues18 days ago

What a nightmare! :(

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KimJ ManyIssues
KimJ ManyIssues18 days ago

Thank you

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KimJ ManyIssues
KimJ ManyIssues18 days ago

Thank you

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Jane H
Jane Howardabout a month ago

We're on the road to nowhere...

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Shirley S
Shirley Sabout a month ago

We must assume that Environmental authorities worldwide will be working on these important health issues.

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Fiona O
Fiona Oabout a month ago

How do we tackle this issue now....when we knew twenty years ago this was going to happen and that it is going to get much worse?

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Noted.

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