24 Apr Music Festivals, Other Drug-Fueled Celebrations May Be Putting Water Supplies at Risk
Illicit drugs and pharmaceutical medications are contaminating our water supplies at an alarming rate. The problem can be especially acute in areas adjacent to music festivals, youth celebrations and beach parties, where young people flush shocking amounts of illegal substances down drains and into rivers, aquifers, reservoirs and other vulnerable waterways.
In a recent edition of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, scientists from Taiwan discussed an analysis they performed in 2014 on the aquatic ecosystem surrounding the site of a massive music jamboree called Spring Scream. During this April mega-concert, over 600,000 young music enthusiasts invaded the grounds of Kenting National Park on Taiwan’s southern coast, and a good percentage of these kids undoubtedly chose to sample the latest offerings available on the youth party drug scene.
The Taiwanese scientists were expecting to find elevated levels of illegal drugs in waterways near the scene of the concert, and their predictions proved to be entirely accurate. They detected a distinct spike in the level of water contamination, with illegal drugs like MDMA (Ecstasy) and ketamine among the surging pollutants. (Measurements were made before the concert for the purposes of comparison.)
In general, the drugs were present in trace amounts. But microscopic lifeforms could be quite sensitive to the introduction of even tiny quantities of these powerful chemicals, and unpredictable effects could result from an unexpected burst of exposure.
Illicit substances like Ecstasy may not pose a threat everywhere. But based on the findings of this Taiwanese study, black market drugs could be a clear and present danger at places and times where large numbers of young people gather to frolic and let loose. In the United States, for example, drug pollution during spring break celebrations could be a legitimate cause for concern, since substance abuse runs rampant during these rowdy gatherings of free-spirited youth.
The pollution of the water supply by illegal drugs, prescription drugs and personal care products is a growing problem. These increasingly ubiquitous sources of contamination have not been studied enough for their impact on living ecosystems to be properly calculated, which makes their introduction into the environment a concern of unknown dimensions.
Chemicals Accumulate in Body
While illegal drug contamination of the waterways is more of a localized problem, prescription drug pollution is universal and widespread. One federal study of 74 drinking water sources in 25 states found 53 were contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs in trace amounts. Parts-per-billion is the norm with this kind of pollution, and while this may not sound like much, it is the consistency of exposure over time that worries scientists. Repeated exposure to chemicals can cause them to accumulate in the cells of the body, and when they start to do so the chances of negative effects increase exponentially.
A recent study of the Great Lakes found that only about one-half of these new categories of emerging contaminants are being effectively removed by wastewater treatment facilities. Of the 42 types of contaminants studied, 11 had very low removal rates, and since federal regulations don’t currently include pharmaceuticals on the list of banned pollutants, not much is being done to address the situation.
Emerging Contaminants Are an Emerging Emergency
Public health authorities have been slow to acknowledge and study the problem of emerging contaminants, and consequently great uncertainty about the scope and depth of the hazards involved persists. Ultimately, disruptions in aquatic ecologies could reverberate up and down the food chain, potentially putting the health and livelihoods of many people at risk. Drinking water contamination is another concern, since constant exposure to powerful drugs may have subtle biological effects on the humans that are difficult to trace or discern.
Even if more in-depth study of the problems associated with emerging contaminants is performed, it could be a long time before concrete results are obtained. In the meantime, while we wait for more information, the plants, animals, microbes and human beings that inhabit the natural environment will continue to be exposed to synthetic drugs that didn’t evolve naturally and were never meant to be “consumed” so indiscriminately.
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