Delft, The Netherlands, 04 Feb 2021

The fate of pharmaceuticals in freshwaters: a new global model for decision making

Scientists have developed a new model that can predict current and future dilution of pharmaceuticals in freshwater ecosystems, like rivers and lakes. Their model is applied to the case of diclofenac, a common anti-inflammatory drug used to reduce pain. The research showed that if no extra mitigation action is taken, the environmental threat will increase by 30% by 2030. Former IHE Delft Postdoc Researcher Francesco Bregoli presented the first research results on the fate of pharmaceuticals in freshwater at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly press conference in 2018. Download the research findings of 2020 below.

Pharmaceuticals are broadly consumed and released into the environment where they flow into freshwater bodies, such as rivers and lakes. Some of this pharmaceutical waste causes serious threats to freshwater ecosystems and have been labelled as contaminants of growing concern by organizations such as the European Union and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Predict current and future dilution of pharmaceuticals in freshwater ecosystems

Francesco Bregoli, a former post-doc researcher at IHE Delft: “With this model, we are able to predict current and future dilution of pharmaceuticals in freshwater ecosystems, taking into account scenarios of climate change and population growth”.

Human and veterinary uses of pharmaceuticals lead to high concentration of these compounds in wastewater, which is often not sufficiently collected and treated in wastewater treatment plants, thus pouring into rivers and lakes. The developed global model identifies hotspots of highly concentrated pharmaceuticals in these waters, using data from a global database of diclofenac consumption and occurrence in freshwaters. The model can also be generalized to other pharmaceuticals than diclofenac.

The EU Water Framework Directive listed diclofenac in the watch list of threatening compounds. This drug has been proven to be the cause of pushing vultures in India close to extinction. If no further mitigation actions are taken, the environmental threat to freshwater will increase by 30% in 2030, endangering fish and other species’ health. The scientists, therefore, introduce feasible mitigation strategies on consumption reduction, sewer connection and improvements of water treatment technology.

Francesco Bregoli: “We found out that technological improvements alone will not even be enough to recover from the current concentration levels. If a substantial consumption reduction is not implemented, a large part of the global river ecosystems will not be sufficiently secured”. 

Research background

The GLOBAL FATE model was presented by Francesco Bregoli at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly press conference in 2018. Download his presentation here.

Download the 2020 open access paper with recommended management actions for mitigation.

This research was featured in The Guardian on 11 April 2018, read the article here.


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