- Recent research has found pharmaceuticals and illicit substances, primarily amphetamines, contaminating water streams in urban areas, impacting the aquatic ecosystem and the food chain.
- The contaminants enter surface waters due to human consumption, manufacturing processes, excretion, and incorrect disposal. Their presence is most concentrated in urban areas.
- Small organisms in streams that maintain stream health are significantly impacted by the exposer to amphetamines.
- An artificial stream experiment carried out by researchers indicated that amphetamines inhibit the growth of biofilms, alter bacterial composition and a type of algae known as diatoms, and led to earlier emergence of insects in the streams.
- Experts urge for more research on this ecological issue and call for innovation in wastewater management to prevent future harm to freshwater resources.
Both prescribed medication and illicit substances are found to be polluting water streams around a prominent U.S. city, says recent research. These findings spotlight the environmental toll of pharmaceuticals and illegal stimulants on our ecosystem.
The Ecological Consequences of Contamination
The pollution’s effect is so significant that some areas in certain streams exhibit high concentrations of amphetamine. These levels are potent enough to modify the foundation of the aquatic food chain.
“Human consumption, excretion, manufacturing processes, and incorrect disposal lead to pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs entering the surface waters worldwide—both through treated and untreated wastewater,” explained research-Smith.
The Role of Small Plants and Animals
She added that the study aimed to understand how amphetamine exposure impacts the small plants and animals in streams. These organisms significantly help maintain stream health. The research was carried out while Smith was a postdoctoral researcher at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
Research Findings and Methodology
For the analysis, the researchers tested the concentration of medicines and illegal drugs on six sites, in streams extending from an urban to a rural region. These samples were collected over the span of 2013 and 2014.
The streams led from the city of Baltimore, Md. The sites under examination were from the Gwynns Falls watershed and also included two rural streams from the Oregon Ridge watershed.
Amphetamines in the Water
A variety of substances, including amphetamines, were detected in the water. Amphetamines are biologically active, highly addictive substances, often used for treating conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, people also misuse stimulants like methamphetamine, ecstasy, and cocaine, which consequently find their way into the streams. The concentration of these substances was higher in streams closer to the city, the study revealed.
The effect of Amphetamine on Stream Life
Following the field sample studies, an additional Artificial Stream Experiment was conducted by the research team to understand how amphetamine impacts stream life.
Professor Rosi-Marshall, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute, expressed concern over the increasing global release of stimulants into aquatic environments, and the lack of knowledge regarding its ecological impact.
He stated, “We observed that exposure to an amphetamine concentration similar to what we recorded in parts of the Gwynns Falls watershed led to tangible and concerning modifications to the base of the aquatic food web.”
In monitoring these impacts over three weeks, the team discovered that amphetamine inhibited the growth of biofilms and caused alterations in the bacterial composition and a type of algae known as diatoms. Additionally, amphetamine pollution also resulted in earlier emergence of insects in these streams.
The Road Ahead for Wastewater Management
“As we continue to wrestle with outdated wastewater infrastructure and a surge in pharmaceutical and illicit drug usage, we can no longer overlook the collateral damage to our freshwater resources,” noted Rosi-Marshall.
She continued, “The ecological consequences of these pollutants and their potential threats to aquatic life and water quality merit more research. The ultimate solutions will be found in how we innovate wastewater management.”
The study was featured in the Environmental Science & Technology Journal.
The Washington State Department of Ecology provides more information on effective management of pharmaceutical waste.