Pharmaceutical waste clogs rivers worldwide

Rivers around the world are clogged with over-the-counter and prescription drug waste that can be harmful to the environment, new research has found.

Drugs including antibiotics, anti-platelet agents and anti-histamines have been detected in the environment at levels dangerous for wildlife.

The new research conducted by scientists at the Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands highlighted that endocrine disruptors have notoriously induced sex changes in fish and amphibians.

It added that pharma waste could increase by two thirds before the middle of the century if current trends persist, potentially endangering a large part of freshwater ecosystems worldwide.

According to an AFP article about the research, lead researcher Franceso Bregoli and his team used the anti-inflammation drug diclofenac – which has been identified as an environmental threat by the European Union – as a proxy to estimate the presence and likely spread of other medications across freshwater ecosystems.

They found that more than 10,000 kilometres of rivers have concentrations of the drug in excess of the EU watch list limit of 100 nanogrammes per litre.

Global consumption of diclofenac reaches over 2,400 tonnes per year and several hundred tonnes remain in human waste. Only seven per cent is filtered out by treatment facilities, with another 20 per cent absorbed by natural ecosystems and the rest ending up in the oceans.

Bregoli and his team developed a computer model to predict current and future levels of pharma pollution based on criteria such as population densities, sewage systems and drugs sales.

After comparing the results to data gathered from 1,400 spot measurements of diclofenac toxicity taken from around the world, they found that pollution levels are likely to be higher in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where less than a quarter of waste water is treated.

Bregoli warned that a substantial reduction in consumption is required.

Photo credit: Keith Ewing/ CC BY-NC 2.0

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