Sustainability Environment

Pharmaceutical pollution found in large portion of world’s rivers

“This is the first truly global assessment of the impacts of single pharmaceuticals and mixtures of pharmaceuticals in riverine systems.”
Mississippi River
The Louisiana side of the Mississippi River is photographed after a drought in 2012. The Associated Press/ Rogelio V. Solis

Story at a glance

  • Unsafe levels of active pharmaceutical ingredients were found in numerous rivers around the world.

  • Exposure to these components can have negative effects on human and marine life.

  • More research is needed to better understand the extent of the problem, as well as future implications. 

Pollution in the world’s waterways is not a new problem, but new research details the extent to which pharmaceutical pollutants have infiltrated rivers around the world.

Published Wednesday in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, the assessment of more than 1,000 locations spanning 104 countries found around 43.5 percent of these waterways contain concerning levels of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). 

APIs can be released during production, use and disposal of pharmaceuticals, researchers explained: “Because they are biologically active molecules, APIs have the potential to adversely affect nontarget organisms,” they noted.

Of the 61 APIs studied, concentrations of 23 exceeded safe levels. Researchers discovered components from a myriad of commonly used drugs including antidepressants, beta-blockers, antimicrobials, painkillers, antihistamines and more. 

Previous studies have documented the negative effects of antidepressants on fish behavior while concerns mount regarding the effect of polluted antimicrobial compounds on drug-resistant bacteria, which can lead to infections.

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“This is the first truly global assessment of the impacts of single pharmaceuticals and mixtures of pharmaceuticals in riverine systems,” said co-author Alejandra Bouzas-Monroy in a statement.

“Our findings show that a very high proportion of rivers around the world are at threat from pharmaceutical pollution,” she said, adding more needs to be done to prevent these substances from polluting the environment. 

Rivers in Africa had the highest proportion of sites with unsafe levels of pollutants, and those in North America had the lowest proportion of sites, due in large part to differences in wastewater management and treatment and presence of pharmaceutical manufacturing, authors wrote.

As more than 1,900 APIs are currently used to treat and prevent disease, this analysis of just 61 might be an underestimation of the pollutants’ true impact on global water sources.

Future research should focus on creating open-access datasets of APIs and other harmful pollutants to better understand the full extent of this problem, authors concluded.

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