Drugs pollute waterways around the world | Sunday Observer

Drugs pollute waterways around the world

27 February, 2022

A recent comprehensive study has noted that the rivers around the world have been polluted by humanity’s drugs and it poses a huge global threat to both human health and the environment. Wildlife is known to be harmed both by the pharmaceutical and other biologically active compounds used by the people: antibiotics in the environment drive up the risk of resistance to the drugs which is one of the biggest threats to humanity.

An environmental editor Damian Carrington wrote, “The scientists measured the concentration of 61 Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) at more than 1000 sites along 258 rivers and in 104 countries, covering all continents. Only two places were unpolluted - Iceland and a Venezuelan village where the indigenous people do not use modern medicines”. As further stated by Carrington, Carbamazepine, an anti-epileptic drug, the diabetes drug Metformin and Caffeine are the most frequently detected APIs.

All these three drugs were found in at least half of the sites which were taken into consideration during the study. Meanwhile, the environmental editor further highlighted “Antibiotics were found at dangerous levels one in five sites and many sites also had at least one API at levels considered harmful for wildlife, with effects such as feminishing fish”. It is noted that the APIs end up in rivers, canals and waterways following being taken by people and livestock and thereupon excreted into the sewer system or straightaway into the environment, albeit some of them may even leak from the pharmaceutical factories.


Carrington further mentioned, “Hotspots with very high levels of APIs included Lahore in Pakistan, La Paz in Bolivia and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Madrid in Spain was in the top 10% of places with highest cumulative concentrations and Glasgow, UK and Dallas, US were in the top 20%”. John Wilkinson of the University of York in the United Kingdom under whose leadership the study was done, involving 127 researchers, representing 86 institutions declared, “The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN and other organisations say antimicrobial resistance is the single greatest threat to humanity”. Wilkinson further noted “In 19% of all of the sites we monitored, the concentration of (antibiotics) exceeded the levels that we’d expect to encourage bacteria to develop resistance”.

As found out by a recent research, it has been estimated that around five million people lost their lives in 2009 due to infections caused by bacteria which were resistant to antibiotics. Based on the same research, Carrington illustrated “The regions suffering the highest impact from antibiotic resistance in that study closely align with those in the study with the worst drug pollution, suggesting the contamination of rivers may be playing a part in driving up resistance”.

As highlighted by the research, another alarming aspect is the fact that one site in Bangladesh had been identified as a place where there were levels of antibiotic metronidazole more than 300 times greater than safe levels. The reason could perhaps be the fact that there were leaks from pharmaceutical factories. It was already known that wildlife was harmed by the effects of drug pollution: contraceptive drugs may reduce the fish population. Wilkinson as quoted by Carrington remarked, “If I were a fish living in some of these rivers, I’d be worried right now”.

The impact on river pollution of 470 million people has been highlighted in a study, published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ and the researchers involved in this particular study declared that pharmaceutical pollution is a global threat to the environment and human health. For a considerable period of time, Western Europe and North America had been the regions taken into consideration in studies of this calibre.


The very latest research has highlighted that API pollution by now is ubiquitous elsewhere. They arrived at the above conclusion following research involving 36 countries where the APIs were measured for the first time, notably in South America and Africa.

Drugs were detected in all the continents except Antarctica. It was also reported that the Kai Tak River in Hongkong had 34 different APLs in a single site which is also the largest number, reported.“Ecological risks could well be greater than predicted for the single APLs due to toxicological interactions of these mixtures,” Carrington quoted a statement of the researchers.

There are more than 2,500 pharmaceuticals in use. But for the time being, as permitted by technology, only 50-100 from a single sample can be analysed. Therefore, the researchers have given their focus only on the most frequently used. It is further reported that the highest drug concentrations were available from low to middle income countries which include both India and Nigeria as well.

As pointed out by the researchers, this may be due to the fact that the people of these countries have a considerable income to buy pharmaceuticals, but simultaneously live in places where there are no good sewerage systems, though expensive it is possible to remove drugs. The measurements of illegal drugs such as MDMA and cocaine were not included in the research.But these drugs have been detected in rivers in a level which is harmful to wildlife.This research gap may be fulfilled in the future.

The environmentalists and the scientists are of the view that the research will give rise to the clean-up efforts on the pharmaceuticals and the regions that are hugely affected. They also believe that a comprehensive wastewater treatment and a sound sewage connectivity is central in minimizing this risk. But these processes can be extremely costly for a lot of infrastructure is involved with the process.

As suggested by the researchers, pollution can be minimized once medicine is carefully used: antibiotics in particular are cheaply available in many countries even without the doctor’s prescription. Though not involved in the study team, Prof. Joakim Larsson of the university of Gothenburg, Sweden said, “Pharmaceuticals are almost omnipresent in rivers across the world”.

Citing the researchers, Carrington mentioned, “The study shows that a fairly large set of pharmaceuticals exceed safe levels and often at a very large number of sites. Bacteria do not respect national borders, so if a new resistant bacterium develops on one side of our planet, it soon becomes a risk for everyone”.

As declared by Carrington, in the future, the researchers are deemed to extend the number of countries covered in the research, as conducting the surveys got affected by the pandemic. Meanwhile, they are waiting to increase the number of drugs taken into measurement and also expect to have an assessment on the levels in rivers through the year where the seasonal trends can be examined.