Drugs are polluting the world’s rivers

Of all water pollution, from plastic to pesticides, there is one that has not always received the same attention for its impacts on the environment and public health. That’s changing with the Global Pharmaceutical Monitoring Project, an initiative that maps drugs found in rivers around the world.

A recent paper by global collaborators on the project, led by the University of York in the UK, provides one of the most comprehensive looks yet at how antibiotics and other commonly used drugs contaminate water and often approach toxic levels.

The study includes samples taken from 258 rivers in 104 countries, representing every continent on the planet. The water samples were tested for 61 different types of drugs, used to control type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, allergies, seizure disorders and more.


Drug levels in rivers continue to rise

Of the more than 1,000 sampling sites included in the study, about a quarter had at least one drug present at levels above concentrations considered safe for aquatic organisms, or that pose a resistance concern. to antimicrobials.

“Pharmaceutical contamination poses a global threat to environmental and human health,” said the authors, whose work was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

And although this has been known for some time, project co-lead Dr John Wilkinson says this is the first time the extent of pharmaceutical contamination in much of the developing world has been assessed.

“We have known for more than two decades that pharmaceuticals find their way into the aquatic environment where they can affect the biology of living organisms,” Wilkinson said.

“But one of the biggest problems we’ve faced in solving this problem is that we haven’t been very representative in monitoring these pollutants, with almost all of the data concentrated in a few select areas in North America, in Western Europe and China.”

The new research reveals that some of the highest levels of drugs concentrated in rivers are found in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. In Barisal, Bangladesh, the level of the antibiotic metronidazole at a sampling site was more than 300 times above the safety target.

Lahore in Pakistan, La Paz in Bolivia and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia had the highest drug levels in the world, with five of 15 locations in the 90th percentile, all in major African cities.

By comparison, Madrid was the only city of them located in Europe or North America.

“Thanks to our project, our understanding of the global distribution of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment has now improved significantly,” says Wilkinson. “This study presents data from more countries around the world than the entire scientific community was aware of.”

Wastewater treatment is essential

The researchers found that places without adequate sewage infrastructure, where garbage or septic tanks are dumped along riverbanks, are most likely to have the highest levels of pharmaceutical contamination. Places with older populations and higher levels of poverty and unemployment also saw more drugs in the water.

“We show that the contamination of the world’s rivers by medicinal chemicals is a global problem that: 1) poses a risk to both aquatic ecology and potential selection for antimicrobial resistance and 2) may compromise the achievement of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 6.3,” the authors warn.

“As we move towards 2030, the new paradigm for environmental monitoring must involve a global, inclusive and interconnected effort.”

By Lauren Fagan Articles in English

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