By Sarah Bates
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2793

Pharmaceutical waste in rivers threatens ‘a new pandemic’

Some of the poorest parts of the world have particularly contaminated rivers
Issue 2793
A river though a green and sandy backdrop

High levels of pharmaceutical waste were found in rivers such as at Luang Prabang, Laos (Pic: John Wilkinson/University of York)

Rivers across the globe are contaminated with such high levels of pharmaceutical waste that they endanger human health and could cause environmental destruction. A new report reveals a fifth of the rivers examined contained drug levels so high they could be contributing to human antibiotic resistance.

And this pollution also threatens fish species.

John Wilkinson, co-leader of the project from the University of York said, “The World Health Organisation and the UN and other organisations say antimicrobial resistance is the single greatest threat to humans—it’s a next pandemic.”

He said in 19 percent of the sites monitored, antibiotic levels exceeded the levels that could be expected to encourage bacteria to develop resistance. “If I were a fish living in some of these rivers, I’d be worried right now,” said Wilkinson.

Rivers become polluted with pharmaceutical products because they’re used by humans and then disposed of into the sewerage system.

But high levels of contamination were also found in connection to Big Pharma firms engaging in practices such as dumping rubbish along river banks and throwing residual septic tanks into rivers.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also showed how manufacturing methods and inadequate wastewater infrastructure were driving river contamination.

Of the more than 1,000 sites examined, only two were found to be unpolluted—Iceland and a village in Venezuela where modern medicine isn’t used. The most contaminated site in Britain was the River Clyde in Glasgow.

Professor Jaokim Larsson from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden said, “Pharmaceuticals are almost omnipresent in rivers across the world”. And he warned of the potential for another pandemic to rip through the globe.

“The study shows that a fairly large set of pharmaceuticals exceed ‘safe levels’, and often at a very large number of sites. Bacteria do not respect national borders, so if a new resistant bacterium develops on one side of our planet, it soon becomes a risk for everyone.”

The landmark research showed the highest levels of drugs concentrations in low-to-middle income countries.

But some of the poorest parts of the world, were shown to have particularly contaminated rivers, such as Lahore in Pakistan, La Paz in Bolivia and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

It was the first time this type of research had been conducted in some of poorer countries.

Wilkinson said, that researchers had known for “over two decades” that this type of pollution was occurring, but only now know the extent of the problem.

“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 research is another example of how the health of humans and the fate of the planet are linked. Environmental destruction by Big Pharma bosses means not just ecological devastation but also threatens the health and lives of every human being in an immediate way.

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