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Drug pollution a threat to river systems around the world - study

Drugs. There has been a significant evidence of prescription drugs such as diclofenac contaminating tens of thousands of river systems across the world. Photo by Pixelbay

As technology progress, many frontiers in science are also being introduced. This leads to a better well-being for humans, primarily because most of the medicinal procedures that they used to lack before are now accessible: Cheaper, stronger, and much more effective. The rise of prescription drugs in the world prove that technological advances will always aid humans in getting the most effective medication possible to treat someone of their disease or ailments, at an affordable price. However, we cannot deny the fact that these advances in medicine come with substantial trade-offs: For one, it played a significant role in the ongoing debate for ethics and conscience on what counts as valid in scientific community. While these effects indirectly harm humans, there’s a trade-off that the environment is at the risk: It’s the fact that our drug waste nowadays has clogged our rivers and water systems across the world.

 

Over the years, we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in drug use, whether it’s prescription or just over-the-counter. In 2017, around 4.13 billion prescriptions were handed out to patients in the United States, and while this number has sharply declined from an all-time high of 4.4 billion in 2013, it is expected that a much larger number--4.58 billion--will be thrown out by 2024. This large number of prescriptions also amount to a very large spending in medicine: In 2016, around $450 billion were spent on medicines, which will get larger by 2021, at a whopping $650 billion. For comparison, if US prescription spending were a country by 2016, it will be the 25th largest economy in the world. This means that for every person, around 12.5 prescriptions were handed out, and this means that billions of dollars in paracetamol, co-amoxiclav, and escitalopram, were given to patients, and this doesn’t even include over-the-counter medications, in which the number is said to be much larger. This number translates to billions of prescription drugs being thrown in rivers and water systems in US and across the globe, and when not well taken care of, we might get in big trouble.

 

River systems across the world are swamped and contaminated with drug waste, according to the Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. In their position presented at a Vienna, Austria conference, they belief that pharmaceutical effluence going to water systems will increase by two-thirds in 2050, or 32 years from now. Most of affected waters are mainly freshwater sources. According to Francesco Bergoli, “a large part of the freshwater ecosystems is potentially endangered by the high concentration of pharmaceuticals,” making it susceptible to problems that might cause contamination and even pollution.

 

Their organization has tracked different 1,400 “hotspots” of drug pollution sources across the world, and has found significant evidence that our medications, from antihistamine to paracetamols, are swarming our water systems. They used a very common anti-inflammation medicine, diclofenac, to track the intensity of drug pollution in different places across the world and found out that more than 10,000 kilometers of rivers around the world pose great danger, possessing high concentrations of diclofenac, which is 100 nanograms per liter, according to European Union standards. Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug, is consumed for almost 2,400 tonnes a year. At a normal dosage of 75 mg per capsule, this means that, theoretically, around 32 billion capsules were consumed or at least 4.5 capsules per every single person on the planet. However, the situation seems to be much worse as several hundred tonnes of this production are trapped in a human waste, and only 7% of these are absorbed by treatment plants, according to the new study. Around 20% were absorbed by the environment.

 

Aside from diclofenac, a common prescription, antibiotics, also play a very substantial role in this drug pollution. With hundreds, or even thousands of tons being produced annually, around 70 to 80 percent of these find their way to natural environments. In addition to this, antibiotics are driving the strain of drug-resistant diseases recently, as warned by the World Health Organization.

 

The impact of drug pollution seems to be very disruptive, at the very large, with some entirely destroying their ecosystems. For example, high toxicity levels of drug contamination in water systems can lead to poisoning of fishes and the ecosystem, leading to massive deaths and fish kills. Certain drugs, such as endocrine disruptors, for example, alter the genetic sequencing of each fish as they undergo sex change in fish and amphibians upon exposure on the certain drug. In some studies, drug pollutions have been generally linked to cause of wildlife decline. Most importantly, drug pollution will greatly affect the livestock and livelihood of millions of people living under fishing, and any related occupational activities in water systems. This puts millions of people at risk, not to mention the unintended consequences of drug pollution in their health and welfare.

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