Drugging our water resources

March 22 is World Water Day and this year (2017) the theme is wastewater. GWP offers two blogs about this subject. The first, by Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova, GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer, explained why she is going to re-think her wardrobe. This is the second blog, by Prof. Igor Bodik of the Slovak Technical University and President of the Association of Wastewater Treatment Experts in Slovakia (a GWP Partner). He explains why he may re-think his diet.


Emerging pollutants (EPs) are chemicals that are not commonly monitored but have the potential to enter the environment and cause adverse ecological and human health effects. These pollutants include a range of organic substances such as endocrine disruptors, industrial additives, siloxanes, disinfectants, hormones, drugs, and antibiotics that are present in small concentrations. In 2005, one scientific database showed about 80 references under “pharmaceuticals and wastewater.” The same database in 2015 counted 550 references.

Another attention-grabbing statistic concerns the concentration and bioaccumulation of drugs in fish. Fish are not known to go to doctors for drug prescriptions. So how is it that a rich cocktail of painkillers, hormones, and drugs appear in fish tissues, river sediments, and groundwater? Researchers are looking into this question and one simple, if not surprising answer is: an increased consumption of both legal and illegal drugs by humans. These are then excreted by urine into sewage systems. Even where wastewater treatment plants are installed, the removal processes are not very effective in eliminating EPs before the water is discharged into rivers and lakes. Several companies are investigating the methods to advance treatment processes, but it often poses excessive cost to the operation of the treatment plants. How paradoxical that the installations that treat wastewater are a source of water pollution!

How can we control the release of EPs into the environment? EPs are currently not included in routine monitoring programmes and their behaviour and ecotoxicological effects are not well understood. They can be released from point pollution sources (e.g., waste water treatment plants) or from diffuse sources (e.g., from crop and animal production), complicating control at the source. Is it a task for engineers? Regulatory control? A change in social behavior and life style? Right now the experts are simply observers of “unexplored” types and amounts of EPs with “unknown” impact to the environment and a “flimsy” arsenal of tools to avoid potential harm to the precious water resources and aquatic life.

Since 2013, Slovak researchers analyzed hundreds of samples from 22 urban wastewater treatment outlets serving a population of 1.4 million (out of a total of 5 million people in Slovakia). The research focused on both legally prescribed and illegal drugs and included statistics on pharmaceutical sales. Four years of results now need to be analyzed to give guidance not only to engineers who design treatment processes but also to decision makers, other sectors (especially health), and the whole society.

Just as textile companies are trying to reduce their impact on water resources (see the accompanying blog to this one, “My wardrobe malfunction and wastewater”), pharmaceutical companies need to figure out ways to make drugs biodegradable. Engineers need to invent new – and affordable – ways (using ozone, nanomaterials, green plants, etc.) of treating water. Governments may need to introduce tighter regulations or more aggressively enforce existing ones (the polluter pays principle). Obviously, we humans are not going to give up our drugs. But we can begin to push for solutions.


About globalwaterpartnership

The Global Water Partnership's vision is for a water secure world. Our mission is to advance governance and management of water resources for sustainable and equitable development.
This entry was posted in Ecosystems, Food security, GWP, Rivers, Water Pollution, Water security, World Water Day and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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