Record quantities of painkillers and anti-depressents found in Humber estuary

Scientists have found some of the highest levels of pharmaceutical pollution ever recorded in the Humber estuary, which could be having a devastating impact on local wildlife.

University of Leeds, Catalan Institute for Water Research and University of Hull researchers studied water samples from the Humber estuary over 12 months, targeting five common drugs – ibuprofen, paracetamol, diclofenac, trimethoprim and citalopram – to determine concentration levels and trends.

The team, led by PhD researcher Sarah Letsinger and Dr Paul Kay, both from the School of Geography at Leeds, found high rates of all the targeted pharmaceuticals in the Humber estuary with 66% of the samples detecting diclofenac and up to 97% of the samples showing ibuprofen.

Dr Paul Kay, from the University’s research centre said: ‘The Humber estuary receives the sewage effluent for approximately 25% of the population of England, so it might be unsurprising that all five target pharmaceuticals were detected at relatively high levels.

‘What’s particularly worrying is this indicates that they are not breaking down or being diluted in the way we would expect in such a big body of water. It could be case that the chemicals are so prevalent that dilution is not possible.

‘Pharmaceuticals are designed to be biologically active, even at low levels. The ubiquitous use of pharmaceuticals and their presence in household wastewater means there is a continuous low level input of these chemical compounds into the aquatic environment, which builds up to a huge amount over time.’

‘It’s only in the past two decades that interest in pharmaceutical pollution has gained interest and now hundreds of drugs have been detected in the aquatic environment. Particularly with the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, this is a serious concern.

‘Due to limited research, we are still discovering what concentrations are actually present in waterbodies and there is limited understanding of what effects the presence of these chemicals may have in our rivers and estuaries. More research needs to be done to effectively shape and inform regulations and policies to protect our freshwater environment.’

In March, a study from Lancaster University revealed that the UK may be underestimating how poor the water quality is in its streams and rivers.

A separate study from Bangor Univerity also found microplastic pollution in some of Britain’s most iconic and remote rivers and lakes.

Photo credit – Pixabay


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