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Half of the world’s rivers are full of prescription drugs, study finds

YORK, UK — According to a recent study, nearly half of the world’s rivers are contaminated by over-the-counter and prescription drugs. The researchers found that this contamination ranged from antibiotics, antidepressants and painkillers to oral contraceptives, allergy pills and tranquilizers.

A team from the University of York says Scotland’s River Clyde is the UK’s most polluted pharmaceutically, with the epilepsy drug carbamazepine being the most common in almost 70% of UK rivers .

Of 54 sampling sites in the UK alone, the study authors detected various drugs in 50. The levels are potentially toxic to humans. Fish and other wildlife are also under threat, a situation that endangers local ecosystems. Drugs that target hormones, for example, have induced sexual changes in marine animals.

The study found that more than 43% of the world’s rivers had “concerning” amounts of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), with 23 exceeding those considered “safe”. The results come from a study of 1,052 sites in 104 countries around the world, making it the largest analysis of its kind.

“With 127 collaborators in 86 institutions around the world, the Global Monitoring of Pharmaceuticals project is a great example of how the global scientific community can come together to tackle large-scale environmental issues,” says the co. -project leader, Dr. John Wilkinson in a university outing.

How do drugs enter local waterways?

The study authors claim that these chemicals enter the environment during their production, use and disposal. They are more likely to be found in surface waters such as streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and wetlands. The findings indicate that contamination is a global problem damaging rivers from the Thames to the Amazon.

“We have known for more than two decades now that pharmaceuticals enter the aquatic environment where they can affect the biology of living organisms. But one of the biggest problems we’ve faced in solving this problem is that we haven’t been very representative when monitoring these contaminants, with almost all of the data concentrated in a few select areas in South America. North, Western Europe and China,” continues Wilkinson. .

Lac studies have shown that birth control pills and other synthetic estrogens cause hormonal disruption. Waters contaminated with diclofenac, a popular painkiller, have led to a noticeable decline in vulture populations on the Indian subcontinent, leading to potential impacts on human health.

Antidepressants have also been shown to affect the behavior of fish, which could disrupt the food chain making them more vulnerable to predators. Scientists fear that the presence of antimicrobial compounds in the environment could contribute to the creation of drug-resistant bacteria, fueling the emergence of deadly superbugs.

“The lack of global API monitoring data means that for many parts of the world, we have no idea of ​​the level of potential impacts,” study co-author Alejandra Bouzas-Monroy said in a statement. release, according to SWNS. “Therefore, we used a unique dataset of concentrations of 61 high-use APIs in rivers from 104 countries to perform the first truly global holistic assessment of their potential ecotoxicological effects.”

Pharmaceutical pollution contaminates water on all continents

“There are 19.5 million people living in the cities where we have carried out surveillance work in the UK – London, Leeds, York, Glasgow, North Wales and Belfast. That’s almost a third of the population,” Wilkinson told SWNS.

The availability of API ecotoxicity data has increased significantly in recent years as the pharmaceutical industry becomes more transparent.

“Twenty‐three APIs had concentrations for at least one sampling location above concentrations where an effect on organisms might be expected,” adds Bouzas-Monroy. “Ten of those identified, including molecules used to treat depression, bacterial infections, epilepsy and anxiety, as well as hormone treatments and stimulants, were found to be at levels of ecotoxicological concern.”

The characterization of the 61 APIs is perhaps just “the tip of the iceberg” as there are nearly 2,000 in circulation. Actual impacts on aquatic systems are expected to be greater.

“The rivers that have been monitored will not only contain APIs but also other pollutants such as industrial chemicals, pesticides and metals,” Bouzas-Monroy said, according to SWNS. “We present for the first time a comprehensive assessment of the potential ecotoxicological impacts of APIs on aquatic ecosystems.”

“We demonstrate that approximately 43.5% of river locations worldwide have concentrations where ecotoxicological effects might be expected, with some locations expected to experience effects across multiple trophic levels and parameters,” the researcher continues. “If we are to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 6, ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’, we must urgently address the global problem of pharmaceutical pollution.”

Which areas have the biggest pollution problem?

The researchers add that the regions of the world most affected are those that have been the least analyzed – sub-Saharan Africa, South America and parts of South Asia. Less than a quarter of wastewater receives the proper cleaning treatment and the technology is unable to filter out most pharmaceuticals.

The team hopes that increased monitoring will lead to strategies that limit the effects. A cutting-edge scan in York identified propranolol, a beta-blocker for heart disease, and loratadine, an allergy drug.

Other drugs found in the rivers included the common antibiotics sulfamethoxazole and ciprofloxacin for bacterial infections. They can disrupt the reproductive abilities of organisms, alter behavior or physiology, and even alter heart rhythm. Estimates show that the amount of drugs seeping into waterways will increase by two-thirds before 2050, endangering freshwater ecosystems.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

Joan J. Dean

The author Joan J. Dean