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Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

Medications in the water?

More and more pharmaceutical drugs are sold each year, which, along with their benefits, have their disadvantages, too: some of the active ingredients are discharged from our bodies unchanged and they end up polluting our natural waters. Our current knowledge suggests that this does not carry a significant health risk, but as we do not know the long-term effects of the process, it is a problem for which we must find a solution in the near future, for instance by introducing new technologies.

The majority of today’s wastewater management systems are unable to remove a significant proportion of pharmaceutical agents, so they are deposited in natural waters with the treated effluent of wastewater treatment plants, and into underground waters through the soil.

At a first glance, the levels
of pharmaceutical pollution
appear to be extremely low in our rivers: most of the frequent pollutants occur at concentrations of tens, possibly a few hundreds of nanograms per litre.

But if we evaluate those results while taking the water yield of larger rivers into account as well, which may be several hundred or even several thousand cubic metres per second, we see a much more alarming picture, as this is equivalent to a complete pill of the respective active ingredient floating by every few minutes. And that’s only one compound, while in fact a combination of several dozen compounds and their metabolites are present in our natural waters.

Pharmaceutical active ingredients occur in rivers in concentrations of a few tens, in some cases a few hundred nanograms per litre Photo: Shutterstock

In addition to rivers, pharmaceuticals can also be detected in lakes and in underground waters (well water), and in recent years, some studies have also found them in tap water. All of those papers emphasise that the concentrations of those materials in tap water are very small, with only a few tens or at most hundreds of nanograms (one billionth of a gram) per litre of water.

This implies that we would have to drink many thousand cubic metres of water
in order to ingest the active ingredients contained in a single pill of medication (for instance an ibuprofen pain killer).

So pharmaceuticals are present in our waters in very low concentrations only, but, on the other hand, several hundred different compounds are all present at the same time. The drugs detected in extremely low concentrations in aquifer waters, sometimes pumped from depths of over a hundred meters are indications not of health risks but rather the environmental impact of deep aquifer wells drilled in a careless and uncontrolled fashion – warns the Geographical Institute of the Astronomy and Earth Science Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

We can do a lot personally to ensure that the amount of pharmaceutical active ingredients released into natural waters is kept to a minimum: avoid unjustified consumption of medications and handle unused medications with care
Photo: Shutterstock
Further information: MTA CSFK Geographical Institute

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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.

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