Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

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.

The majority of today’s wastewater management systems are unable to remove a significant proportion of pharmaceutical agents, so they are deposited in natural waters with the treated effluent of wastewater treatment plants, and into underground waters through the soil.

At a first glance, the levels
of pharmaceutical pollution
appear to be extremely low in our rivers: most of the frequent pollutants occur at concentrations of tens, possibly a few hundreds of nanograms per litre.

But if we evaluate those results while taking the water yield of larger rivers into account as well, which may be several hundred or even several thousand cubic metres per second, we see a much more alarming picture, as this is equivalent to a complete pill of the respective active ingredient floating by every few minutes. And that’s only one compound, while in fact a combination of several dozen compounds and their metabolites are present in our natural waters.

Pharmaceutical active ingredients occur in rivers in concentrations of a few tens, in some cases a few hundred nanograms per litre Photo: Shutterstock

In addition to rivers, pharmaceuticals can also be detected in lakes and in underground waters (well water), and in recent years, some studies have also found them in tap water. All of those papers emphasise that the concentrations of those materials in tap water are very small, with only a few tens or at most hundreds of nanograms (one billionth of a gram) per litre of water.

This implies that we would have to drink many thousand cubic metres of water
in order to ingest the active ingredients contained in a single pill of medication (for instance an ibuprofen pain killer).

So pharmaceuticals are present in our waters in very low concentrations only, but, on the other hand, several hundred different compounds are all present at the same time. The drugs detected in extremely low concentrations in aquifer waters, sometimes pumped from depths of over a hundred meters are indications not of health risks but rather the environmental impact of deep aquifer wells drilled in a careless and uncontrolled fashion – warns the Geographical Institute of the Astronomy and Earth Science Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

We can do a lot personally to ensure that the amount of pharmaceutical active ingredients released into natural waters is kept to a minimum: avoid unjustified consumption of medications and handle unused medications with care
Photo: Shutterstock
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.

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.

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.

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.