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

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.

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.

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.