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Oestrogens, illicit drugs and pharmaceuticals in wastewater

R+D CSIC 30 years

In 1998, scientists found out the first evidence that fish in European rivers were being "feminised" by oestrogenic pollutants in wastewater. Today, wastewater monitoring has methods to detect oestrogens, illicit drugs, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, antibiotics...

In recent years, says the researcher, In 1998, a team from the Department of Environmental Chemistry of the former Institute of Chemical and Environmental Research of Barcelona (IIQAB-CSIC) collected the first evidence that carps in the Anoia river (a tributary of the Llobregat) were becoming feminised due to contamination by oestrogenic compounds. These compounds are endocrine disruptors that mimic female hormones. They are produced by urban and industrial pollution and can have effects on biodiversity, animals and humans.

The results of that research, published in 2000, demonstrated for the first time the impact of such pollution on fish in Spain. It was also the first in a series of similar studies in other places. Miren López de Alda, a researcher at del Instituto de Diagnóstico Ambiental y Estudios del Agua (IDAEA-CSIC), and a coauthor of that study explains: "thanks to that work, alkylphenols - which are powerful endocrine disruptors – have been included in the list of priority pollutants to be monitored."

Oestradiol and oestrone (oestrogens of natural origin but which can also be derived from pharmaceuticals) were included by the European Union on the so-called Watch List (WL) of substances to be monitored to collect enough information for their regulation.

In 2008, the same group developed the first online method to detect illicit drugs in wastewater. In 2011, they were part of a group of eleven laboratories that monitored for the first time the presence of illicit drugs in wastewater in 19 European cities. In 2012, they conducted the world's first study to investigate the use of illicit drugs in a prison.

An overview of environmental chemistry research in 1993, in an article signed by the then CSIC Delegate in Catalonia, Joan Albaigés.

They have also worked on detecting alcohol and cytostatics (anti-cancer drugs). "For many of these compounds, the analysis methods developed and the studies carried out by us in different environmental compartments (water, sediments, air, etc.) are the first described worldwide," says López de Alda.

The big leap: non-target tests to detect almost anything

In recent years, says the researcher, "there has been an exponential growth of studies worldwide that analyse different biomarkers in wastewater to investigate exposure to environmental pollutants as well as the lifestyle of population".

She points out that while in the past research projects were aimed at studying specific pollutants, depending on knowledge and techniques available, now technology has improved so much that it enables the "non-target" analyses, i.e. to analyse a water sample and detect thousands of possible pollutants.

This is possible not only because technology improvement but also because there is an international collaboration between laboratories that share their data in libraries of mass spectra (something like the molecules “fingerprints”). A giant leap forward.