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Almost half the world’s rivers are polluted with prescription drugs: Researchers

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Almost half the world’s rivers are polluted with over the counter and prescription drugs such as antibiotics, antidepressants, and tranquilizers, according to a study led by UK researchers.

A team from the University of York studied the presence of pharmaceuticals in the world’s rivers and found that half had been contaminated with drugs, while a quarter showed potentially toxic levels to humans and threatens fish, wildlife, and local ecosystems.

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The study looked at hundreds of rivers across the globe, including the Thames in London and the Amazon in Brazil, to measure the presence of 61 pharmaceuticals, such as carbamazepine, metformin, and caffeine.

The Union flag flutters in the breeze on top of the Victoria Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster seen from the south bank of the River Thames in central London on April 20, 2020. (AFP)
The Union flag flutters in the breeze on top of the Victoria Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster seen from the south bank of the River Thames in central London on April 20, 2020. (AFP)

Out of 54 sampling sites just in the UK alone, study authors detected various drugs in 50, with the epilepsy drug carbamazepine the most common found in nearly 70 percent of British rivers.

The study found more than 43 percent of rivers worldwide displayed “concerning” amounts of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), with 23 exceeding those considered “safe.”

An Iraqi man stirs his boat around Dead fish, from nearby farms, floating on the Euphrates river near the town of Sadat al Hindiya, north of the central Iraqi city of Hilla, on November 2, 2018. Iraqi fishermen, south of Baghdad were stunned and angry after finding thousands of dead carp mysteriously floating in their water farms or washed up on the Euphrates' river bed.
An Iraqi man stirs his boat around Dead fish, from nearby farms, floating on the Euphrates river near the town of Sadat al Hindiya, north of the central Iraqi city of Hilla, on November 2, 2018. Iraqi fishermen, south of Baghdad were stunned and angry after finding thousands of dead carp mysteriously floating in their water farms or washed up on the Euphrates' river bed.

The findings come from a study of 1,052 locations in 104 countries across the world, making it the largest analysis of its kind.

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

“We’ve known for over two decades now that pharmaceuticals make their way into the aquatic environment where they may affect the biology of living organisms. But one of the largest problems we have faced in tackling this issue is that we have not been very representative when monitoring these contaminants, with almost all of the data focused on a select few areas in North America, Western Europe and China.

“Through our project, our knowledge of the global distribution of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment has now been considerably enhanced.”

Study authors say these chemicals enter the environment during their production, use, and disposal. They are most likely to turn up in surface waters such as streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands.

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

Anti-depressants have also been shown to affect fish behavior, which could upset the food chain by making them more prone to predators. Scientists fear the presence of antimicrobial compounds in the environment is contributing to the creation of drug‐resistant bacteria, fueling the emergence of deadly superbugs.

“If we are to fulfill the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 6, ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’, we urgently need to tackle the global problem of pharmaceutical pollution,” said Dr Wilkinson.

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