Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Pharmaceuticals in water supplies can lead to dangerous ‘happy fish’ phenomenon

Pharmaceuticals in water supplies can lead to dangerous ‘happy fish’ phenomenon
26 Feb
2020
The release of pharmaceuticals into rivers and lakes is having dramatic consequences for both human health and that of ecosystems

When people get ill, we mostly take medicines, get better, and by and large that’s the end of the story. For scientists studying our waste water however, it’s only the beginning. What’s often overlooked is that humans will then excrete pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and antidepressants, with much of this waste ending up in the wild. Water treatment plants can filter out some of these drugs, but studies have demonstrated that persistent pharmaceutical residues are still sneaking through the metaphorical net.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonSince its inception in 1935, Geographical has reported on many thousands of global issues, allowing readers to look past the boundaries and borders of our world and take a broader perspective. In these turbulent times, we’re still committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

What happens when these drugs enter our waterways? Diana Aga, a professor in the chemistry department at the University at Buffalo has been trying to answer this question. She explains that the results can be both varied and alarming. ‘Antibiotics are most interesting because at very low levels they encourage the development of antimicrobial resistance,’ she says. ‘Some major drugs are no longer effective in killing pathogens and that’s because pathogens have developed resistance.’ When it comes to human health this is certainly the most dangerous consequence. However, as Aga explains, there are also many other surprising consequences when it comes to fish and wildlife.

‘Two years ago, we showed that antidepressants that are excreted by humans end up in rivers and lakes, with fish then accumulating them in the brain,’ says Aga. ‘You have this effect – we call it “happy fish” because they’re under the influence of antidepressants. We haven’t yet shown it in the wild, but in lab experiments the fish don’t avoid predators anymore. The long-term effect might be a collapse in biodiversity.’

Other drugs can also have dramatic effects on ecosystems. Release of birth control pills into the wild has long been linked to endocrine disruption in fish. This can lead to males producing eggs or females no longer producing eggs. Some fish have even been shown to develop both female and male sex organs.

Aga and her team have been analysing how wastewater treatment plants could be adapted to avoid this problem. The most common method at such plants is called ‘activated sludge’, which involves microorganisms breaking down organic contaminants. But this is only partly effective when it comes to pharmaceuticals. Aga has demonstrated that adding two more processes known as ‘granular activated carbon’ and ‘ozonation’ can reduce the concentration of escaped residues by more than 95 per cent. These processes increase the cost of treatment considerably, but Aga emphasises that it’s a good investment. In particular, as populations grow and more and more cities worldwide consider recycling wastewater into drinking water, it could prove essential in preventing the drugs we take to cure us causing more harm than good.

Get Geographical delivered to your door!
signup buttonAs we brace ourselves on our personal islands, it can be hard to picture the processes of the planet continuing to whir. Marooned in our homes, it’s vital that we stay positive, motivated and informed. Geographical is committed to helping you explore the world from the comfort of your sofa. Get the world delivered to your door, with Geographical.

Subscribe today to Geographical’s monthly print and digital magazine and save 30% off the cover price! 

Related items

Julysub 2020

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

geo line break v3

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Oceans

Researchers have revealed just how many polluting microfibres are released…

Wildlife

Increasing reports of seized jaguar fangs and skin suggest that…

Geophoto

Forced isolation has given many of us the chance to…

Oceans

A fifth of the ocean floor has now been mapped,…

Wildlife

Four ex-circus lions discovered in France are due to be…

Oceans

A roundup of some of the top discussions from the…

Energy

The agave plant, used to make Tequila, has proven itself…

Climate

Concerns about the ozone hole have diminished as levels of…

Wildlife

In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Munu – a…

Geophoto

Photography competition, Earth Photo, returns for the third year with…

Oceans

A new study reveals the process behind the strange phenomenon…

Wildlife

Hunting is a topic that attracts polarised viewpoints. But as…

Oceans

A compilation of 50-years worth of data on human activity…

Wildlife

From the US to the Mediterranean, herds of goats are…

Wildlife

Meet the 2020 Whitley Award winners

Wildlife

Protecting the most famous members of the animal kingdom may…