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Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

Scientists on the trail of pharmaceutical residues

The active ingredients of various medicines are released into the environment with treated and untreated wastewater, and today they can be detected not only in surface waters but also in underground waters and the soil. But what defensive measures can we take against them? Hundreds of research groups are studying that question worldwide.

Specialists in the field have detected pharmaceutical residues in many locations in our environment.
It is a scientifically proven fact that some of those may represent apparently serious risks for living organisms even in very low concentrations.

For instance carbamezapine, a popular anticonvulsant used for the treatment of epilepsy, has a detectable effect on the reproduction of toads: the number of offspring remains the same,
but they become smaller.

Although for the time being these molecules are only present in very small concentrations in both water and soils/sediments, the environmental concentration of some active ingredients is growing rather fast.

Back in the first half of the 2000s, the Poseidon project financed by the European Union already established that, due to the growth of the pharmaceutical industry and human factors such as increasing longevity and the growing use of pharmaceuticals across all age groups, various active ingredients were present in our surface waters in small concentrations.

As analytical methods develop, an increasing number of active ingredients can be detected in environmental samples in ever lower quantities, in recent years, we have become aware of an exceedingly complex environmental issue that will present a serious challenge in the future – warn experts at the Geographical Institute of the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Based on the available scientific results, the World Health Organisation believes it is important to emphasise that those materials represent a severe threat to drinking water safety, too Photo: Shutterstock

Article 16 of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) summarizes the strategies against pollution of water. The first regulation about the so-called priority substances that represent a significant risk for the environment was issued in 2001. The list was complemented on two occasions, but it still only features 33 substances/groups of substances (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and toxic metals).

The European Commission published the first Watch List in 2015 and updated it in June 2018. The list features a number of derivatives of pharmaceuticals (e.g. certain synthetic hormones) as well as antibiotics. Member states are obliged to monitor the pollutants on the list in aquatic environments. A great deal depends on the evaluation of results and the further steps taken. It is clear that the appropriate detection and filtering of pharmaceutical residues is an increasingly urgent issue.
It is therefore reassuring that development of the technologies that will furnish a solution is
underway. However, their wide-spread application will depend to a great extent on the
associated regulatory environment.

Therefore the research that tracks the movement and absorption of those pharmaceuticals in our immediate and wider environments is crucially important 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?

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