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Dangerous levels of medical drugs polluting UK rivers poses a risk to wildlife

Potentially dangerous levels of medical drugs could be polluting British rivers and contributing to a decline in freshwater species, according to wildlife charity Buglife.

The charity examined contamination data across the UK alongside current scientific research, with wastewater treatment works found to be a major source of pharmaceutical drugs.

Concentrations for the 14 drugs examined exceeded recommended levels in discharges 94% of the time and release toxic chemicals as they break down.

These medicines, including painkillers, anti-inflammatories and antidepressants, can alter reproduction, behaviour and development of freshwater invertebrates, like snails, shrimps and mussels.

green plant near water falls

‘Freshwaters are haemorrhaging biological diversity faster than any other ecosystem on earth,’ said Craig Macadam, Conservation Director at Buglife. ‘Whilst medicines are essential to human health, their residues are making our rivers sick, with commonplace drugs present in concentrations that are harmful to freshwater invertebrates.

‘We need a prescription for our rivers that improves water treatment facilities, properly evaluates the risks, and reduces the opportunities for the most harmful substances to enter the water environment.’

Research has revealed how ill-equipped wastewater treatment facilities are to deal with medical drugs, with concentrations of anti-inflammatory drugs Ibuprofen and Diclofenac found in 84% and 34% of downstream samples.

A global study from the University of York has also shown concentrations of medicines at potentially toxic levels in 25% of the locations studied, while Scottish research has recommended further action be taken on nine medicines to reduce their environmental impact.

The Environment Agency’s the Prioritisation and Early Warning System (PEWS) to identify emerging chemical issues a priority score of risk and certainty.

Of the 14 pharmaceuticals in Buglife’s study, 7 of them have been scored in the PEWS, with 5 receiving the highest priority score, and a further 2 receiving the second highest priority score.

Buglife is calling for improved evaluation of environmental risks posed by medical drugs, retrospective risk assessments for drugs already in use, assessment of breakdown products and research into the effects of mixing medicines.

The charity also says wastewater treatment facilities must be improved to prevent chemical pollutants from entering waterways and pharmaceuticals should considered part of a circular economy, preventing surplus waste and reducing incorrect disposal.

Additionally, urgent research is needed to study the full risks of pharmaceuticals on biodiversity and their effect on birds and fish, as we currently don’t know the full extent of the damage they are causing the environment.

Photo by Andy Watkins

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