Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

From pharmacies to natural waters

Modern medical science offers effective solutions to an increasing number of health problems, and in most cases they take the form of medications. Pills make our pain go away, they improve our quality of life and aid our recovery. But, unfortunately, the effects of their active ingredients do not stop there.

In recent decades, the quantity of pharmaceutical products marketed worldwide has been growing significantly. But what exactly is the fate of those medications? We take them, the active compounds are absorbed by our bodies, they reach their ’target areas’ and exert their effects. But a part of the active compounds we consume pass through our bodies unchanged.

According to the results of studies published in acclaimed journals,
some 10 to 40 percent of the
active ingredients of drugs, and,
in some cases even more than half
pass through our bodies without
any changes.

Those components end up either in the sewer system, or directly in the soil. Sometimes drugs beyond their use by dates are also discarded in the household waste or the toilet. But they are not destroyed there, either: they continue along the sewer system. In Hungary, communal wastewater is treated, so those pipelines usually terminate at a wastewater treatment plant.

Up to half of the active ingredients of drugs we consume may pass through our bodies unchanged Photo: Shutterstock

But can those treatment plants deal effectively with the pharmaceutical products?

The specialist journal Environmental Science and Technology has been publishing studies about the levels of pharmaceutical drugs in the effluent of wastewater treatment plants for a decade now. The further purification of treated wastewater focused on the elimination of pharmaceuticals was also a priority theme at the 17th International Conference on Chemistry and the Environment held in June 2019 in Thessaloniki.

A number of studies have shown
that the most common types of wastewater treatment plants in operation today, including newly built ones, cannot eliminate a significant portion of the pharmaceuticals
from wastewater.

The water released from those plants into our environment contains various concentrations of all the pharmaceutical active ingredients that are consumed by the communities that the plants serve. The treated wastewater may then return those drugs to living surface waters and underground waters – that is the indication of the latest results from the research conducted at the Geographical Institute of the Astronomy and Earth Science Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

Research shows that present wastewater treatment technologies are unable to eliminate a significant proportion of pharmaceutical active ingredients Photo: Shutterstuck
Further information: MTA CSFK Geographical Institute

Hungarian water treatment plant in Vietnam

It was announced in 2010 that the Vietnamese government would like to build a water treatment plant in Central Vietnam. Hungary is famous for its water treatment technology so they decided on a Hungarian partner.

The Biopolus BioMakery in the Netherlands

The Trappist monks of Koningshoeven Abbey have been brewing beer since 1881, and in recent years, they have also been baking bread and making chocolate, honey and cheese. The water to be treated is the wastewater from these brewing and manufacturing activities, together with the municipal wastewater from the Abbey and the visiting centre.

Over two tonnes of golf balls collected from Monterey Bay

Specialists believe almost 30 kilograms of microplastics has eroded from such a quantity of golf balls into the water.

Algal blooms grow more severe in the great lakes of the world

Over the last three decades, summer algal blooms in all large fresh-water lakes around the world have grown more severe – this is the conclusion of a global study, the longest ever of its kind, conducted by researchers from the Carnegie Institution for Science and NASA. 

The Pacific cleanup may succeed

The system created by a Dutch inventor called System 101, whose first trial run, conducted a year ago, had failed, has started collecting plastic waste on the Pacific again.

Hungarian innovation to filter pharmaceutical residues

Many studies worldwide have shown that the active compounds of medications are released into the environment with wastewater and can easily be reintroduced into the human food chain from there. Filtering these residues out is an increasingly acute concern, but, thankfully, the world of science has already responded to the problem.

Garbage from Asia has inundated an island in the middle of the Atlantic

Researchers from Canada and Africa have found a massive amount of plastic bottles, originating form Asia, mainly from China, on Inaccessible Island, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. The bottles were probably discarded into the water and then washed up on the island from cargo ships passing the region.

Pharmaceutical residues in Hungarian waters

In Hungary, too, the active ingredients of various medications are discharged continuously into the environment with wastewater, so they can now be detected in surface and underground waters as well as in soils.

What can we do against pharmaceutical residues in our waters?

After being introduced into human and animal organisms, some pharmaceutical compounds are secreted via urine unchanged, and then, through wastewater, those compounds may reach surface waters that serve as drinking water supplies, representing a risk for both aquatic ecosystems and for the purity of drinking water.

Microplastics from an unexpected source

We’ve known for a long time that plastic food packaging, wearing car tyres and clothing made of synthetic fibres are all sources of microplastic pollution. However, a new study has identified a new source of pollution in our kitchens, or more precisely in our teacups.