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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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