Preventing water crises
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Preventing water crises

Steroids in the water?

Despite the continuous development of wastewater treatment technologies, the complete removal of synthetic pharmaceuticals using the three-step method currently in use is yet to be achieved. A number of researchers are working to improve the efficiency of the removal of these molecules from the present value of 10 to 30 percent.

Active agents are discharged into natural waters in a biologically still active form, and due to their stable, decomposition-resistant chemical structures they accumulate in natural waters in the long term and eventually become detectible in drinking water, too.

Pharmaceutical residues can cause changes to ecosystems and the human body in even very low concentrations. They enter food chains and disturb natural material cycles and the natural behaviour of biomes and individual species. Today, man-made steroids have become some of the most studied environmental pollutants – warns the Geographical Institute of the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Photo: Shutterstock

Pursuant to a 2014 decision of the European Parliament, estrogen was placed on the list of so-called hazardous substances. Based on available concentration data, levels of that active substance are higher than the specified detection limit value in a number of natural bodies of water. Although steroid hormones do not exhibit acute toxicity, they do have a significant effect on the reproduction and development of biological organisms that are not considered targets once they enter the aquatic environment.

In aquatic invertebrates (e.g. snails and shells) and vertebrates (e.g. amphibians and fish), it influences the animals’ own hormone levels at concentrations of 1–10 ng/l, interfering with the operation of the endocrine system and they also have an adverse effect on the maturation of gametes, embryonic development, reproductive behaviour and the development of secondary sex characteristics.

Observable effects include decreasing numbers of individuals and species, the local disappearance of certain species from individual habitats, dysfunctions
of sexual maturation and the spread
of structural modifications that
reduce viability.

The Adaptive Neuroetology Research Group of the Balaton Limnological Institute has studied the biological effects of synthetic progestogens in large marsh snails. Their experiments have shown that in water containing progestogens, the feeding activity of marsh snails was reduced, while their movement intensity actually increased: they were trying to flee from unfavourable conditions. In addition, the number of eggs they produced also dropped, and the eggs were of lower quality, as well.

Photo: Shutterstock

In humans, the synthetic contraceptives ingested via food of plant and/or animal origin or drinking water are harmful primarily to developing organisms. Data published in 2017 proves that steroid pollution has a wide range of detrimental effects on genetic materials, the nervous system and immature gametes in humans, and it also increases the risk of breast and prostate cancers.

17α-ethynylestradiol, for instance, can modify brain structure and operation, and as a consequence, behaviour patterns in the developing female nervous system. The increasingly wide-spread damage to male reproductive function (e.g. reduced sperm count) is also associated with hormone pollution.

According to some studies, among fertile men, the absolute sperm count has dropped by 1.5 percent per year between 1938 and 1988 in the USA, while in Europe, there was a 3.1 percent reduction between 1971 and 1990. Some pessimistic experts believe that by 2035, the majority of the male population will become infertile.

Scientists believe that the main cause of the decreasing sperm count is chemical pollution in the environment. That’s one reason why it is reassuring that a number of research efforts are underway to develop more effective filtering processes, and they are quite successful, so in the near future we are likely to see the introduction of technologies that are better at filtering these active substances from water.

Photo: Shutterstock
Further information: MTA CSFK Geographical Institute

Hungarian water treatment plant in Vietnam

It was announced in 2010 that the Vietnamese government would like to build a water treatment plant in Central Vietnam. Hungary is famous for its water treatment technology so they decided on a Hungarian partner.

The Biopolus BioMakery in the Netherlands

The Trappist monks of Koningshoeven Abbey have been brewing beer since 1881, and in recent years, they have also been baking bread and making chocolate, honey and cheese. The water to be treated is the wastewater from these brewing and manufacturing activities, together with the municipal wastewater from the Abbey and the visiting centre.

Over two tonnes of golf balls collected from Monterey Bay

Specialists believe almost 30 kilograms of microplastics has eroded from such a quantity of golf balls into the water.

Algal blooms grow more severe in the great lakes of the world

Over the last three decades, summer algal blooms in all large fresh-water lakes around the world have grown more severe – this is the conclusion of a global study, the longest ever of its kind, conducted by researchers from the Carnegie Institution for Science and NASA. 

The Pacific cleanup may succeed

The system created by a Dutch inventor called System 101, whose first trial run, conducted a year ago, had failed, has started collecting plastic waste on the Pacific again.

Hungarian innovation to filter pharmaceutical residues

Many studies worldwide have shown that the active compounds of medications are released into the environment with wastewater and can easily be reintroduced into the human food chain from there. Filtering these residues out is an increasingly acute concern, but, thankfully, the world of science has already responded to the problem.

Garbage from Asia has inundated an island in the middle of the Atlantic

Researchers from Canada and Africa have found a massive amount of plastic bottles, originating form Asia, mainly from China, on Inaccessible Island, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. The bottles were probably discarded into the water and then washed up on the island from cargo ships passing the region.

Pharmaceutical residues in Hungarian waters

In Hungary, too, the active ingredients of various medications are discharged continuously into the environment with wastewater, so they can now be detected in surface and underground waters as well as in soils.

What can we do against pharmaceutical residues in our waters?

After being introduced into human and animal organisms, some pharmaceutical compounds are secreted via urine unchanged, and then, through wastewater, those compounds may reach surface waters that serve as drinking water supplies, representing a risk for both aquatic ecosystems and for the purity of drinking water.

Microplastics from an unexpected source

We’ve known for a long time that plastic food packaging, wearing car tyres and clothing made of synthetic fibres are all sources of microplastic pollution. However, a new study has identified a new source of pollution in our kitchens, or more precisely in our teacups.