Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

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.

Active agents are discharged into natural waters in a biologically still active form, and due to their stable, decomposition-resistant chemical structures they accumulate in natural waters in the long term and eventually become detectible in drinking water, too.

Pharmaceutical residues can cause changes to ecosystems and the human body in even very low concentrations. They enter food chains and disturb natural material cycles and the natural behaviour of biomes and individual species. Today, man-made steroids have become some of the most studied environmental pollutants – warns the Geographical Institute of the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Photo: Shutterstock

Pursuant to a 2014 decision of the European Parliament, estrogen was placed on the list of so-called hazardous substances. Based on available concentration data, levels of that active substance are higher than the specified detection limit value in a number of natural bodies of water. Although steroid hormones do not exhibit acute toxicity, they do have a significant effect on the reproduction and development of biological organisms that are not considered targets once they enter the aquatic environment.

In aquatic invertebrates (e.g. snails and shells) and vertebrates (e.g. amphibians and fish), it influences the animals’ own hormone levels at concentrations of 1–10 ng/l, interfering with the operation of the endocrine system and they also have an adverse effect on the maturation of gametes, embryonic development, reproductive behaviour and the development of secondary sex characteristics.

Observable effects include decreasing numbers of individuals and species, the local disappearance of certain species from individual habitats, dysfunctions
of sexual maturation and the spread
of structural modifications that
reduce viability.

The Adaptive Neuroetology Research Group of the Balaton Limnological Institute has studied the biological effects of synthetic progestogens in large marsh snails. Their experiments have shown that in water containing progestogens, the feeding activity of marsh snails was reduced, while their movement intensity actually increased: they were trying to flee from unfavourable conditions. In addition, the number of eggs they produced also dropped, and the eggs were of lower quality, as well.

Photo: Shutterstock

In humans, the synthetic contraceptives ingested via food of plant and/or animal origin or drinking water are harmful primarily to developing organisms. Data published in 2017 proves that steroid pollution has a wide range of detrimental effects on genetic materials, the nervous system and immature gametes in humans, and it also increases the risk of breast and prostate cancers.

17α-ethynylestradiol, for instance, can modify brain structure and operation, and as a consequence, behaviour patterns in the developing female nervous system. The increasingly wide-spread damage to male reproductive function (e.g. reduced sperm count) is also associated with hormone pollution.

According to some studies, among fertile men, the absolute sperm count has dropped by 1.5 percent per year between 1938 and 1988 in the USA, while in Europe, there was a 3.1 percent reduction between 1971 and 1990. Some pessimistic experts believe that by 2035, the majority of the male population will become infertile.

Scientists believe that the main cause of the decreasing sperm count is chemical pollution in the environment. That’s one reason why it is reassuring that a number of research efforts are underway to develop more effective filtering processes, and they are quite successful, so in the near future we are likely to see the introduction of technologies that are better at filtering these active substances from water.

Photo: Shutterstock
Further information: MTA CSFK Geographical Institute

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.

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.