Don’t Drink the Water

The AP reported earlier this week that the Indian pharmaceutical industry is spewing a drug soup into the waters of a town near Hyderabad

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The AP reported earlier this week that the Indian pharmaceutical industry is spewing a drug soup into the waters of a town near Hyderabad. I’m not all that surprised by this news, though, because an article in the November 2007 Smithsonian documented the crazy levels of pollution (raw sewage, toxic metals, even rotting bodies) in the sacred Ganges.

From A Prayer for the Ganges:

A blue stream spews from beneath brick factory buildings in Kanpur, India. The dark ribbon curls down a dirt embankment and flows into the Ganges River. "That's toxic runoff," says Rakesh Jaiswal, a 48-year-old environmental activist, as he leads me along the refuse-strewn riverbank in the vise-like heat of a spring afternoon. We're walking through the tannery district, established along the Ganges during British colonial rule and now Kanpur's economic mainstay as well as its major polluter.

I had expected to find a less-than-pristine stretch of river in this grimy metropolis of four million people, but I'm not prepared for the sights and smells that greet me. Jaiswal stares grimly at the runoff—it's laden with chromium sulfate, used as a leather preservative and associated with cancer of the respiratory tract, skin ulcers and renal failure. Arsenic, cadmium, mercury, sulfuric acid, chemical dyes and heavy metals can also be found in this witches' brew. Though Kanpur's tanneries have been required since 1994 to do preliminary cleanup before channeling wastewater into a government-run treatment plant, many ignore the costly regulation. And whenever the electricity fails or the government's waste conveyance system breaks down, even tanneries that abide by the law find that their untreated wastewater backs up and spills into the river.

A few yards upstream, we follow a foul odor to a violent flow of untreated domestic sewage gushing into the river from an old brick pipe. The bubbling torrent is full of fecal microorganisms responsible for typhoid, cholera and amoebic dysentery. Ten million to 12 million gallons of raw sewage have been pouring out of this drainpipe each day, Jaiswal tells me, since the main sewer line leading to the treatment plant in Kanpur became clogged—five years ago. "We've been protesting against this, and begging the government to take action, but they've done nothing," he says.

Admittedly, it may seem that antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin and other pharmaceuticals wouldn’t be as bad as raw sewage. Wouldn’t the drugs counteract the microorganisms? But the chemicals bring their own problems, as the AP noted:

The discovery of this contamination raises two key issues for researchers and policy makers: the amount of pollution and its source. Experts say one of the biggest concerns for humans is whether the discharge from the wastewater treatment facility is spawning drug resistance.

"Not only is there the danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria evolving; the entire biological food web could be affected," said Stan Cox, senior scientist at the Land Institute, a nonprofit agriculture research center in Salina, Kan. Cox has studied and written about pharmaceutical pollution in Patancheru. "If Cipro is so widespread, it is likely that other drugs are out in the environment and getting into people's bodies."

(Hat tip to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker)

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