Are Current Pharmaceuticals Levels in Natural Waterways Dangerous?

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Written by Consensus
4 min read

Are current pharmaceuticals levels in natural waterways dangerous?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

Current levels of pharmaceuticals in natural waterways pose significant ecological risks to aquatic organisms, particularly due to the persistence and biological activity of these compounds. While the direct risk to human health from drinking water contamination is generally low, continuous monitoring and improved wastewater treatment are essential to mitigate potential long-term effects. Geographical and seasonal variations in pharmaceutical concentrations highlight the need for localized and adaptive management strategies to protect both aquatic ecosystems and human health.

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are increasingly being detected in natural waterways, raising concerns about their potential ecological and human health risks. These contaminants, often originating from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff, and domestic sources, can persist in the environment and affect aquatic organisms and ecosystems.

Key Insights

  • Ecological Risks to Aquatic Organisms:
    • Pharmaceuticals such as ibuprofen, sulfamethoxazole, diclofenac, and triclosan pose medium to high ecological risks to aquatic organisms, affecting different trophic levels like algae, crustaceans, and fish .
    • Analgesics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and antibiotics are frequently detected and exert significant toxic pressure on aquatic ecosystems, particularly downstream of wastewater treatment plant discharges .
    • Chronic exposure to low concentrations of pharmaceuticals can lead to behavioral changes in fish, such as increased activity and altered social and foraging behaviors, which can have long-term ecological consequences.
  • Persistence and Removal Efficiency:
    • Many pharmaceuticals are not efficiently removed during wastewater treatment processes, leading to their persistence in surface waters. For example, carbamazepine, naproxen, diclofenac, and ibuprofen are regularly detected and persist in environmental waters .
    • Some pharmaceuticals and their metabolites can even undergo back-transformation during wastewater treatment, complicating their removal and increasing their persistence in the environment.
  • Human Health Risks:
    • The risk to human health from trace levels of pharmaceuticals in drinking water is generally considered low. Studies have shown that the concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water are typically below levels that would pose significant health risks .
    • However, continuous monitoring and improved wastewater treatment processes are recommended to ensure the safety of drinking water sources .
  • Geographical and Seasonal Variations:
    • The levels of pharmaceuticals in waterways can vary significantly based on geographical location and seasonal factors. For instance, higher concentrations are often observed in areas with dense human populations and livestock farming, as well as during dry seasons .
    • Specific hotspots of pharmaceutical pollution have been identified in certain river basins, indicating the need for targeted monitoring and mitigation efforts.

 

 

Are current pharmaceuticals levels in natural waterways dangerous?

Bruno Nunes has answered Near Certain

An expert from University of Aveiro in Toxicology

Some pharmaceutical drugs exist in the wild in levels that already surpass the amounts that are required to cause adverse effects in aquatic biota. Their amount is ever increasing, and water treatment processes are not effective to prevent their release into the aquatic ecosystem. Some of these drugs may interact with other substances, and show some potential to compromise physiological traits of many aquatic species, even in the levels in which these substances occur.

 

Are current pharmaceuticals levels in natural waterways dangerous?

Jude Kong has answered Near Certain

An expert from York University in Applied Mathematics

Pharmaceuticals and especially their byproducts can contaminate waters. it is important to detect pharmaceutical traces and bioremediate them.

 

Are current pharmaceuticals levels in natural waterways dangerous?

Mike Grace has answered Likely

An expert from Monash University in Environmental Science

Dangerous to what?

To humans touching the water or swimming in it? No.

Drinking a few mouthfuls (not that you would do this voluntarily)? No.

As an acute toxicity threat to biota (insects, fish)? No.

As a mechanism for inducing sub-lethal effects in stream organisms and essential ecosystem services like photosynthesis and nutrient cycling. Almost certainly.

Sub-lethal effects can range from insects emerging earlier from the water at lower weights, which then affects their predators food supply, behavioural responses e.g. changed predator-prey relationships in fish in response to antidepressants in the water for example, inhibition of photosynthesis in stream plants (including biofilms) which then lowers the food supply available to higher order organisms in the food web.

Hence these pharmaceuticals at concentrations found in most waterways around the world are termed ‘Ecosystem Disruptors’.

 

Are current pharmaceuticals levels in natural waterways dangerous?

Francesco Regoli has answered Uncertain

An expert from Università politecnica delle Marche in Ecotoxicology

Not probably dangerous, but certainly highlighting that the widespread occurrence of pharmaceuticals in aquatic environments and organisms can not be anymore ignored and requires public awareness and actions.

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