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Pharmaceutical pollution is contaminating water on every continent

A new study out of the University of York-led Global Monitoring of Pharmaceuticals Project has looked at the presence of pharmaceuticals in 258 rivers across the globe. Major river systems such as the Thames in London and the Amazon in Brazil were evaluated to measure the presence of 61 pharmaceuticals, including carbamazepine, metformin and caffeine.

While previous research has monitored pharmaceuticals in rivers, the new study is the first of its kind to measure a wide variety of contaminants on a global scale. 

“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,” said Dr John Wilkinson, who led the research.

“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.”

The researchers set out to capture the extent of pharmaceutical pollution across the globe. The experts gathered water samples from a range of sites spanning from a Yanomami Village in Venezuela, where modern medicines are not used, to some of the world’s most populated cities such as Delhi, London, New York, Lagos, Las Vegas, and Guangzhou.

Additionally, the study authors considered factors such as political instability and evaluated areas such as Baghdad and the Palestinian West Bank. To reflect variations in climate, samples were collected from high altitude alpine tundra in Colorado and polar regions in Antarctica, to Tunisian deserts.

As a result of this global effort, key takeaways include:

  • pharmaceutical pollution is contaminating water on every continent 
  • strong correlations between the socioeconomic status of a country and higher pollution of pharmaceuticals in its rivers (with lower-middle income nations the most polluted)
  • high levels of pharmaceutical pollution associated with regions of high median age as well as high local unemployment and poverty rates
  • the most polluted countries have been researched the least (namely sub-saharan Africa, South America and parts of southern Asia)
  • the activities most associated with the highest levels of pharmaceutical pollution included rubbish dumping along river banks, inadequate wastewater infrastructure and pharmaceutical manufacturing, and the dumping of the contents of residual septic tanks into rivers.

The researchers hope that continuous monitoring of pharmaceuticals in the environment can inform the development of strategies that work to limit pollution and reduce the associated effects. 

The data for specific rivers will be available in the supplemental information on the Global Monitoring of Pharmaceuticals Project website.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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