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Drugs in the water

More than 50 chemicals, including prescribed and illegal drugs, discovered in water off Hampshire and West Sussex coasts
Chichester harbour, a large port, harbour and marina for boats situated several miles inland from the sea in a safe haven

Main image: Chichester Harbour

An ongoing study looking at water quality in and around Chichester and Langstone harbours has revealed high levels of potentially harmful chemicals.

In a novel collaboration between local interest groups and Portsmouth and Brunel Universities, hundreds of samples were gathered off the coasts of Hampshire and West Sussex by the Clean Harbours Partnership (CHP) campaign group last year as part of Project Spotlight.

University of Portsmouth and Brunel University London researchers analysed 288 samples and have so far detected more than 50 compounds across 22 sites. These include pharmaceuticals, and recreational drugs.

The team also discovered pesticides, including simazine, propamocarb, imidacloprid, and clothianidin.

‘We know there are billions of litres of sewage discharges annually around the UK but the impact of these discharges are not clearly understood. 

‘This project is enabling us to determine what chemical contaminants are in our marine life and coastal waters.

‘We have found a large variety of prescribed and illegal drugs plus a variety of pesticides in coastal waters and marine organisms, such as crabs and oysters.

‘This is important, because we know that aquatic ecosystems are under threat from pharmaceuticals and farming practices such as biocides and fertilisers.’

University of Portsmouth’s School of Biological Sciences

Impact of drugs in water

Professor Ford’s previous research revealed tiny quantities of antidepressants in water can affect wildlife, such as crustaceans and molluscs.

It also found drugs will affect the behaviour and biological make-up of these creatures, including changing colour, growth and reproducing less or more.

‘There is a staggering list of prescription drugs passed from humans to wastewater treatment plants and into receiving streams, estuaries, or oceans by direct consumption, metabolism, and excretion or by toilet flushing of old prescriptions.

‘The release of human pharmaceuticals into aquatic ecosystems is an environmental problem we should consider seriously.’

University of Portsmouth’s School of Biological Sciences

Sewer overflow discharges

A post-storm seawater sample taken by CHP near an outflow pipe from Budds Farm treatment works, near Langstone, showed a reading of 380,000 colony forming units (cfu) per 100ml of E.coli, which is 760 times safe levels as set out under the European Bathing Water Directive. Levels above 500cfu/100ml signify a risk to human health.

Scientists will now compare the concentrations of these pollutants, found during last year’s drought, with those taken at the same sewage discharge locations after combined sewer overflow (CSOs) discharges had been activated by rainfall.

‘Chemical pollution from CSOs is becoming a real cause for concern due to the number of chemicals that are being found all over the environment and not just in the UK.

‘It is important that the public are becoming more aware of the problem, and it has been a really great opportunity to work with locals in the area and address some of their concerns surrounding the issue.’

Brunel University

Community concern

Project Spotlight was crowdfunded by concerned local residents, groups of water users and organisations through the Clean Harbours Project, its community partners and the University of Portsmouth.

The aim is to reveal what chemical contaminants are impacting important coastal environments and as a result influence change.

‘Thanks to community funding, we are starting to get an insight into the cocktail of chemicals polluting our sea water and their sources. Some pesticides seem to have been lingering for several years and the presence of partly digested antidepressants, drugs for type 2 diabetes and bladder infections is concerning. So little is known about their impact on marine life.

‘The sheer scale of sewage discharges into our water courses has shocked the public. It looks like the debate is set to continue as we learn what’s in the water and how ineffective the authorities have been at managing such obvious threats to our precious environment.’

Co-founder of Clean Harbours Project

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