The world's rivers are clogged with pharmaceutical waste

medication
CC BY 2.0 Eric Norris

Scientists say levels are dangerously high, affecting wildlife and ecosystems.

The next time you feel a headache coming on, take a moment before popping a painkiller and remember this: that drug will persist in the environment long after its traces have left your body. New research from the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education has found high concentrations of pharmaceuticals in river systems around the world. The research was presented to scientists at the European Geosciences Union in Vienna this week. The Guardian reports:

"A large number of drugs – analgesics, antibiotics, anti-platelet agents, hormones, psychiatric drugs, antihistamines – have been found at levels dangerous for wildlife. Endocrine disruptors, for example, have induced sex changes in fish and amphibians."

The research team, led by Dr. Francesco Bregoli, developed a method to track drug pollution hotspots, using a common anti-inflammation drug, diclofenac, "as a proxy to estimate the presence and spread of other medications in freshwater ecosystems." Bregoli and his team found that more than 10,000 kilometres (6200 miles) of rivers contain diclofenac at quantities higher than the 100 nanograms per litre limit suggested by the EU; and that veterinary use of diclofenac has led to the near-extinction of a species of vulture on the Indian subcontinent.

The problem is that there is no effective way to deal with these trace pharmaceuticals. Large quantities remain in human feces, and only 7 percent gets filtered out by water treatment facilities. Twenty percent is absorbed by ecosystems, and the rest goes out to sea.

As Bregoli says in the Guardian, technology is not the solution; rather, "We need a substantial reduction in consumption." In other words, people need to rely less on drugs to manage their illnesses and pain.

This may sound like a tall order for countless North Americans who consume handfuls of pharmaceuticals on a daily basis in order to get by. The over-medicalization of human health can make dealing with physical ailments holistically seem daunting, but this is yet another reason to take a fresh approach, viewing pharmaceuticals as a last resort, rather than a regular treatment.

This research relates to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, attributed mainly to industrial animal agriculture, which currently uses 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States, and does so because of the atrocious and unnatural conditions in which animals are raised for consumption.

Learn more here.

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