Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

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.

In recent decades, the quantity of pharmaceutical products marketed worldwide has been growing significantly. But what exactly is the fate of those medications? We take them, the active compounds are absorbed by our bodies, they reach their ’target areas’ and exert their effects. But a part of the active compounds we consume pass through our bodies unchanged.

According to the results of studies published in acclaimed journals,
some 10 to 40 percent of the
active ingredients of drugs, and,
in some cases even more than half
pass through our bodies without
any changes.

Those components end up either in the sewer system, or directly in the soil. Sometimes drugs beyond their use by dates are also discarded in the household waste or the toilet. But they are not destroyed there, either: they continue along the sewer system. In Hungary, communal wastewater is treated, so those pipelines usually terminate at a wastewater treatment plant.

Up to half of the active ingredients of drugs we consume may pass through our bodies unchanged Photo: Shutterstock

But can those treatment plants deal effectively with the pharmaceutical products?

The specialist journal Environmental Science and Technology has been publishing studies about the levels of pharmaceutical drugs in the effluent of wastewater treatment plants for a decade now. The further purification of treated wastewater focused on the elimination of pharmaceuticals was also a priority theme at the 17th International Conference on Chemistry and the Environment held in June 2019 in Thessaloniki.

A number of studies have shown
that the most common types of wastewater treatment plants in operation today, including newly built ones, cannot eliminate a significant portion of the pharmaceuticals
from wastewater.

The water released from those plants into our environment contains various concentrations of all the pharmaceutical active ingredients that are consumed by the communities that the plants serve. The treated wastewater may then return those drugs to living surface waters and underground waters – that is the indication of the latest results from the research conducted at the Geographical Institute of the Astronomy and Earth Science Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

Research shows that present wastewater treatment technologies are unable to eliminate a significant proportion of pharmaceutical active ingredients Photo: Shutterstuck
Further information: MTA CSFK Geographical Institute

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.

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.

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.

Volunteer collects 300 bags of waste in two months on Lake Tisza

During the 1st Lake Tisza Plastic Cup, 32-year-old Bence Párdy got so outraged by the massive amount of waste covering the lake that after the Cup he left his job and moved to the side of the lake, where he has been collecting waste as a volunteer for over two months.

Water pollution is a greater issue than microplastics

According to a report from the UN World Health Organisation, we urgently need to know more about microplastics, although according to our very limited current knowledge, they represent only a minimal health risk. Polluted drinking water is a much greater problem, as its consumption causes millions of fatalities each year.

Microplastics detected in snow and ice

German and American scientists have detected plastic microfibers in samples of snow and ice collected in the Arctic. The researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven have found microplastics in snow samples from Bavaria, Bremen, the island of Helgoland, the Swiss Alps and the region of the North Pole.