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.
The best method to avoid the pollution of drinking water with pharmaceutical residues is prevention, that is to say avoiding discharge into natural waters.
In the long term, changing public attitudes and providing further training to doctors may help to reduce excessive use of pharmaceuticals. The development of ‘green’ medicines that decompose faster can also reduce the quantity of hazardous, persistent molecules, but it would be also important to collect and neutralise unused medicines appropriately.
Individual pharmaceutical substances are only present in waters in very low concentrations, but several hundred different compounds are involved, which makes it difficult to estimate long-term effects and it is also an obstacle to effective water treatment.
It would be a great step forward if wastewater from hospitals were to be treated separately. Chlorination reduces the concentration of pharmaceutical residues by half, but the process generates free radicals, which are also harmful. The same is true of the highly efficient ozone treatment technology as well. Reverse osmosis can remove up to 99 percent of larger active molecules, and active carbon filters and nanofilters are also very effective. However, all of those technologies are very costly, so they are not suitable for the low-cost treatment of large volumes of water.
Hungarian Government Decree no. 201/2001 (X. 25.) on the quality requirements applicable to drinking water and testing procedures does not prescribe testing for medicines and other chemicals produced by pharmaceutical production facilities. At present, there are no appropriate (efficient and specific) regulations in place to control the quality of the effluent from pharmaceutical factories, research laboratories, hospitals and medicinal baths. Yet we should treat that as a priority issue, as the impact is unforeseeable and may be harmful even in the short term.
Such solutions may include the binding of active pharmaceutical compounds using various natural adsorbents, as that would allow pharmaceutical molecules to be removed from water without generating harmful metabolites or radicals. This could be implemented using various materials with high surface adsorption capacities (e.g. filters containing active carbon), but also using natural soils, or mixtures of such materials.
In addition, urban and rural areas could both use biocarbon adsorbents made from local plant waste. It is important that the materials used for adsorption should not only be effective at binding the pollutants, but also amenable to cost-effective management and neutralisation. There are research efforts at an advanced stage in Hungary to develop such filter materials, for instance at the laboratories of the Geographical Institute of the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences, as part of a flagship Hungarian innovation project.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.