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

Steroids in the water?

Despite the continuous development of wastewater treatment technologies, the complete removal of synthetic pharmaceuticals using the three-step method currently in use is yet to be achieved. A number of researchers are working to improve the efficiency of the removal of these molecules from the present value of 10 to 30 percent.

EU campaign to clean up beaches worldwide

As part of a campaign launched by the European Union, which culminated on 21 September, International Coastal CleanUp Day, marine waste washed up on beaches is collected in more than 80 countries on all inhabited continents, the European Commission has announced.

The creation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

This astonishing video is about the creation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of the state of Texas.

Radioactive water to be dumped in the Pacific Ocean?

On 11 March 2011, Japan suffered a magnitude 9 earthquake, which also impacted the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Since then, more than a million tonnes of radioactive water has been collected from the damaged cooling system of the plant, but the tanks will be filled to capacity by 2022.

The cycle of active pharmaceuticals: from the sewage system onto our tables

The set of problems around pharmaceutical residues is extremely complex: the active compounds that are released can reach not only drinking water but also our food. Luckily, scientists have started investigating the problem, and the development of technologies able to offer a solution is also under way.

Thousands of marine mammals perish around UK shores

Data from the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme indicates that between 2011 and 2017, almost five thousand marine mammals were stranded around the shores of the UK.

Food packaging trash covers beaches

Nine of the ten most common types of seaside waste are related to human food and drink consumption.

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.

Awareness-raising popsicles made of polluted water

Three design students in Taiwan teamed up to create the Polluted Water Popsicles project so as to call attention to the increasing level of water pollution caused by the country’s economic growth and urbanisation.

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.