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Pharmaceutical products in all the rivers of the world

It’s worse than imagined. According to a study of unprecedented scale carried out by a team of scientists from York University, pharmaceutical pollution affects every river in the world. The concentration of drugs in rivers henceforth represents a threat for both river ecosystems and human health.


A large scale study

This study is exceptional in terms of its methodology and results. The team of York University (United Kingdom), brought together 127 researchers from around the world to take more than 1,000 samples from 258 streams and rivers, covering 104 countries and more than 471 million people. Previous studies had covered only 75 countries, mostly in Europe and North America.

It revealed that drugs are massively present in rivers. Only two rivers, one in Iceland and another close to a village in Venezuela whose inhabitants do not use any modern drug, were spared from pharmaceutical pollution. Above all, the concentration of pharmaceutical products in rivers has reached dangerous levels.

The highest concentrations were recorded at Lahore in Pakistan, La Paz in Bolivia, and at Addis-Ababa in Ethiopia. Other regions of the world are also affected: the rivers of Brussels, the Belgian capital, Luxembourg and Dallas (United States) feature among the 20% of rivers presenting the highest concentrations of drugs. Even in the Antarctic, four types of pharmaceutical products were detected! 34 different pharmaceutical products were identified in the river Kai Tak, in Hong Kong. According to the authors, a quarter of the world’s rivers contain drugs at levels considered dangerous. Further knowledge is required, but we already know that cocktails of several chemical compounds increase their harmful effects.

The highest concentrations exist where wastewater treatment is the least efficient or close to drug fabrication factories. This pollution reflects our lifestyles: drugs used to treat diabetes and epilepsy were found in many samples as were antidepressants, antihistamines, anaesthetics and antibiotics.


New resistance to drugs

The discovery of antimicrobial drugs (including antibiotics) in strong concentrations in rivers is particularly worrying: their presence allows bacteria to develop new defence mechanisms that may reduce the efficacy of these drugs, declared the research team.

Resistance to antibiotics has become one of the ten major threats to human health according to the WHO. Bacterial infections that resist antibiotics killed close to 5 million people in 2019. In its document “Antimicrobial Resistance and Water: The Risks and Costs for Economies and Societies”, the World Economic Forum stated that up to 10 million deaths from now to 2050 could be caused by resistance to antibiotics.


Risks for the health of rivers and human beings

The presence of pharmaceutical products in freshwater affects the entire chain of life. The study by York University shows that drugs such as contraceptives can prevent fish from breeding and feminise males, meaning the extinction in time of species and fewer fish to eat for the population. Populations are also exposed, either directly through the water they drink, or through their food.

The researchers identified several sources of pollution: hospital waste, wastewater treatment plants, septic tanks and pharmaceutical product production sites. Around the world, about 80% of wastewater is currently discharged into the environment without treatment!

We know that good connections between drains and good wastewater treatment are the keys for minimising, although not necessarily eliminating, concentrations of drugs.”, said Dr John Wilkinson, who directed the study at York University  in the newspaper The Guardian

“However, it’s extremely costly as it requires a lot of infrastructures.” Investing in more efficient water treatment infrastructures is one of the solutions. Changing the way in which we consume drugs is another as residues of pharmaceutical compounds continue to remain in water.

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