From birth control to methamphetamine, if it goes down the drain it'll likely end up in rivers or oceans. Scientists have long known that many pharmaceuticals end up in the environment as a result of both drug disposal and excretion. Now, a new study shows that so many people are sending illegal drugs down the drain that streams around Baltimore are flush with the stuff.
According to the study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies measured the content of illegal drugs in the waterways around Baltimore and found significant amounts of drugs, including meth and speed. Streams within the city’s urban environments had particularly high levels of residue from the drugs, Jen Christensen reports for CNN.
“We have every reason to suspect that the release of stimulants to aquatic environments is on the rise across the globe, yet little is known about the ecological consequences of this pollution,” Emma Rosi-Marshall, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute, tells Ian Johnston for the Independent.
While past studies have shown how easily legal pharmaceuticals can get into urban ecosystems through sewer systems, scientists are only just beginning to look at how illegal drugs can affect the natural world. For this latest study, the researchers set up an artificial stream system containing the same level of drugs found in the wild. They added local organisms, like bacteria, moss and even bugs, to see how they might be affected by the presence of these chemicals in their habitats, Christensen reports. With just a few weeks of exposure, the chemicals significantly altered their test environment. Moss growth was suppressed, different bacteria thrived and insects grew and hatched earlier.
These findings are concerning not just for Baltimore’s waterways, but because it’s very likely to be happening in cities around the world. While it doesn’t mean that your tap water is giving you a boost of amphetamines, the findings do suggest that what we put into our bodies doesn’t stop with us.
“Around the world, treated and untreated wastewater entering surface waters contains pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs that originate from human consumption and excretion, manufacturing processes, or improper disposal,” Sylvia Lee, a scientist with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, tells Johnston.
While more research needs to be done to understand the full effect of these chemicals on the natural world, it indicates that it’s long past time our cities reexamine how our wastewater is handled so as not to continue contaminating the world around us.