Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

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.

In some regions of the United States, 7 to 8 percent of treated wastewater is used to irrigate agricultural land and to replenish underground water reserves periodically. Despite the wastewater treatment, traces of a number of pharmaceutical agents can be detected in the treated wastewater – for instance ibuprofen and diclofenac, which are strong anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs.

As a result of continuous irrigation, those agents can accumulate in the soil and indirectly in plants too, and there may be an increased risk of pollution to groundwater and aquifer waters. In recent decades, the problem of pharmaceutical derivatives being returned by irrigation to the environment and thence in the human food chain has been identified in a number of countries that employ intense irrigation, warns the Geographical Institute of the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Irrigation may lead to the accumulation of pharmaceutical residues in plants, too
Photo: Shutterstock

Not even so-called confined aquifer waters are safe – although we might think that such bodies of water are essentially protected against potential pollution because they do not mix with groundwater. In a number of large cities around the world, drinking water is obtained from deeper strata of the ground and purified using the customary technologies, yet researchers have still found pharmaceutical residues in it – most frequently the anticonvulsant carbamazepine.

The research results indicate
that pharmaceutical residues have already reached the components
of the global water cycle that are protected in the short term, but vulnerable to pollution in the
medium and long term.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has prepared a list of the most dangerous organic compounds, which currently features 129 pollutants (including plant pesticides and insecticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and pharmaceutical agents).

That list plays an extremely important role in the regulation of international emissions, but it does not contain all the compounds that may be potentially harmful to living organisms. In addition, another document containing guidelines for wastewater emissions (Effluent Guidelines) was also published, which regulates the emissions of a number of other pollutants in addition to those on the above list.

Today’s research can help a great deal with the analysis and assessment of the risks associated with pharmaceutical residues, which are expected to intensify in the future Photo: SHutterstock
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.