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.
Several Hungarian groups of researchers are studying the impact of pharmaceutical molecules on the environment and looking for solutions. Since 2016, in a priority project of the National Competitiveness and Excellence Programme (NVKP), the Geographical Institute of the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences has been researching the path of various pharmaceuticals, primarily endocrine disruptors, i.e. substances that interfere with the hormonal system (EDCs, for instance hormones) and certain tranquillizers, painkillers and antidepressants from communal wastewater treatment plants to natural waters.
Difficult to decompose pharmaceutical substances detected in the environment also include a number of painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs such as diclofenac, the active ingredient of Cataflam and Fortedol, which, along with its analgesic effect, also influences the hormonal system, and which primarily impacts aquatic wildlife and its diversity. Similarly to diclofenac, some other analgesics (such as tramadol, or the painkiller lidocaine well-known for its use in dentistry) are also quite persistent. Consumption of those substances is also very high: in Hungary, the annual consumption of diclofenac exceeds 21 tonnes, while that of tramadol is over 18 tonnes, and some of that amount is discharged into natural waters through the sewage network. As a good illustration we may note that transporting that amount in 100% pure active ingredient form would take two articulated lorries.
As another part of the NVKP project, the experts also sought new, cost-efficient water treatment technologies other than the water filters already on the market. They tested alternative, safe filtering technologies that could later be used in large volumes to remove pharmaceutical derivatives from polluted water.
Large quantities of compostable vegetable waste are produced throughout most of the year: grass cuttings, remnants of fruit, dry leaves... After suitable composting, those materials are converted to small grain-size organic matter that can be used for filtering water, as those natural materials are capable of removing large amounts of various hydrophobic pharmaceutical residues.
In addition, the project is also testing a number of soil-based organic materials and biocarbon as potential filter materials. The initial results are highly promising. They vary the physical characteristics of the material constantly to increase the efficiency of these potential filter materials. The neutralisation of the materials used as adsorbents is still in development, but the technology is proving to be promising as regards cost efficiency.
The Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences will present the tests, procedures and products developed by the project at the 2019 Budapest Water Summit. The processes and products they have developed already have their own brand: visitors can get acquainted with the developments under the CLEAREADY sign.
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 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.
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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.
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.
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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.