Where do our medicines really end up?
Remember the last time you were ill, or even just hungover? Those antibiotics and ibuprofen don’t just remain in your body. They end up in our aquatic environment.
This is because 30-90% of any medicines we take orally can be excreted in our pee! That pee ends up at wastewater treatment plants, which are not great at removing these pharmaceuticals out of the effluent.
Yang et al. (2017) has shown that conventional sewage treatment processes to be ineffective to remove pharmaceuticals.
This year (2019), a study by University of York released a global study regarding antibiotics. They found in some of the world’s river’s these drugs exceed ‘safe’ levels. The study revealed that high risk sites were typically adjacent to wastewater treatment systems, waste or sewage dumps and in some areas of political turmoil.
So, that means all these drugs we take to make us healthy again are ending up in our environment as well as coming back into our drinking water. Bottled water isn’t a feasible alternative either – as last year the World Health Organisation found 90% of bottled water contained microplastics, which have littered our environment.
So what does this mean for the marine environment?
The Marine Strategy Framework Directive of the European Union aims to protect, by 2020, the coastal resources based upon marine-related economic and social activities according to the particular features of each European region, that should identify and assess pharmaceuticals as a predominant pressure.
The monitoring of prioritized pharmaceuticals and relevant metabolites in coastal aquatic resources is also part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established by the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations.
A study undertaken by Taina Fonseca at University of Algarve looked into the effects of anti-cancer drugs on non-target species in coastal zones. She found that Hediste diversicolor a wide-spread polychaete (a marine worm) when exposed to anti-cancer drugs even at trace levels had disruption to burrowing behaviours, and caused neurotoxicity, oxidative damage and genotoxicity.
In other words, these anti-cancer drugs were reducing the growth and productivity of this marine worm. That’s just one species!
In another lab study it has been revealed that pharmaceuticals affected the behaviour, and reproduction of fish and invertebrates at levels seen in the environment. See here
By the time pharmaceutical compounds are through the wastewater, there isn’t just one chemical but a cocktail of chemicals in the environment. Taina Fonseca notes that the sublethal responses obtained through drug exposure individually does not predict the effects offered when combined with other pharmaceuticals or even other chemicals that pass through wastewater treatment plants.
Yet solutions aren’t a priority…
In low-income regions, the installation and development of advanced wastewater treatment technologies is not considered governmental priority. They require significant investment and skilled labor for operation. And even in high-income countries, there often isn’t the environmental legislation in place to enforce the removal or monitoring of pharmaceuticals in wastewater.
Advanced wastewater treatment doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg. This is where Clean Water Wave can help. We are monitoring what’s in our wastewater effluent and what we can remove from going into our seas using our technology. This is a low-cost, low maintenance solution – which will really have a big impact on the quality of effluent going out in to our seas.
We’re passionate about improving our environment, and we think we can really help. If you want to find out more or ask us questions, get in touch!