The Issue of Pharmaceutical Pollution in Ireland

pharmaceutical pollution

The Issue of Pharmaceutical Pollution in Ireland

Pharmaceuticals are essential to our well-being. However, pharmaceutical pollution is a source of growing concern. This form of pollution can be very dangerous for animal and human welfare. In a recent study, pharmaceuticals were detected in rivers across Ireland. 


How Do Pharmaceuticals Get Into Our Water?

Emissions of pharmaceuticals can happen in different ways. For example, during drug manufacturing, through urine and faeces, or by disposal of unused drugs. Wastewater treatment plants aim to remove unwanted material from water. However, they are not always successful for all materials. The removal efficiency of pharmaceuticals can be as low as 40% for some antibiotics. 

Factors causing increased levels of pharmaceutical pollution in water include: 

  • Increased use: The use of pharmaceuticals is projected to increase by ~45-65% by 2045. 
  • Improper disposal: ~75% of the Irish population have disposed of medicine incorrectly. 
  • Climate change: Droughts and floods can alter the dilution of pharmaceuticals in water. 


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Central pathways of pharmaceutical water pollution


Investigating Pharmaceuticals in Irish Rivers

A Dublin City University (DCU) study reported that Irish rivers contain pharmaceuticals. Surface water samples were collected from locations recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study focused on four rivers – the Liffey, Nore, Suir and Annalee.

Professor Fiona Regan, director of the DCU Water Institute, reported: “We analysed 16 pharmaceuticals based on their presence in European rivers and found them in all the rivers we sampled.”

Some drugs that feature are: 

  • 17α-Ethinylestradiol (EE2) (oral contraceptive)
  • Diclofenac (anti-inflammatory)
  • Venlafaxine (antidepressant)
  • Sulfamethoxazole (antibiotic) 


The Dangers of Pharmaceutical Pollution 

The drugs in Irish rivers listed above can harm animal and human health as follows:

EE2. A long-term study in Canada saw the ‘feminisation’ of male fish due to EE2. This phenomenon led to the near extinction of the species from the lake. 

Diclofenac. A drug used in cattle, diclofenac is toxic to vultures in tiny doses. Vultures are also at increased risk of consuming residues of the drug in dead livestock. Due to diclofenac, vulture populations have declined in Southeast Asia. 

Venlafaxine. This antidepressant was the drug detected the most in the Irish river study. Research shows that venlafaxine can cause behavioural and developmental changes in fish. 

Sulfamethoxazole. High concentrations of antibiotics in water can cause antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR can lead to the development of drug-resistant ‘superbugs’, which have been found in Irish rivers. AMR was responsible for 1.27 million deaths in 2019 alone. 


The EU’s Plan to Fight Pharmaceutical Pollution

The EU has included pharmaceuticals on its water watchlist of emerging water pollutants. This list is updated roughly every two years, with the next update coming in 2024. Also, a new EU directive was adopted this year. This directive will introduce ‘quaternary’ water treatment, a fourth phase of water screening. Quaternary treatment would catch and neutralise pharmaceuticals and chemicals. 


Conclusion for Pharmaceutical Pollution in Irish Water

Quaternary water treatment to remove pharmaceuticals will only be mandatory as of 2045. This means it will take ~20 years before this essential water treatment is in use across the EU. However, testing for drugs in water is possible today. This testing can help monitor the problem of pharmaceutical pollution to mitigate risks. Southern Scientific helps companies detect and quantify pharmaceuticals in wastewater.


Learn more about our pharmaceuticals in wastewater testing here!

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