Traces of drugs such as heroin and cocaine were found in wastewater collected from a provincial treatment plant, according to a recent study by Unisa.
The study provided some clues about the population at large’s health and lifestyles, the researchers believe.
The university also found traces of statins, fibrins and other medicinal and recreational drugs.
Such contaminants flow into the country’s rivers and dams from various sources, including abattoirs, hospitals, communities, factories, fish farms and land farms.
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These results were revealed at a water research seminar at the university during its research and innovation week, which ran from 26 February to 2 March.
Post-treatment water samples taken at the Daspoort wastewater treatment plant in July and August last year also contained compounds such as those found in anti-cholesterol drugs and psychoactive drugs like amphetamines.
“Those compounds are there—and plenty,” said professor Titus Msagati of Unisa’s nanotechnology and water sustainability research unit.”
“We also found plasticisers, vermicides, insect repellent, analgesics, and pesticides,” he said.
“The wastewater treatment plant was not able to remove these compounds, probably because they were not designed to deal with such compounds.”
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Water waste is a process used to convert wastewater into an effluent that can be returned to the water cycle, with minimal impact on the environment or directly reused.
In 2016, the same research team tested samples from the Hennops and Jukskei rivers and Hartebeespoort Dam. Back then they found antibiotics such as ampicillin and ciprofloxacin; pain medication such as ibuprofen; the hormone testosterone; and various azole antifungals.
The university said there were no water monitoring and treatment standards for many contaminants, which was why its tests were among the first in the field.
“Such testing is extremely expensive, however, and no organisation on its own can monitor the water supply for new contaminants.”
“We need to come together collectively, as the industry, government, academia and the community, including NGOs,” Msagati said.
The three-year study, funded by the water research commission, would cover water treatment plants in 25 cities, towns and villages in all provinces across the country.
Other contaminants found in such water often include pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and disinfectants, according to water expert Chris Swartz.
Examples include flame retardants; X-ray contrast fluid; the synthetic hormone EE2; pesticides such as atrazine and simazine; natural chemicals such as caffeine; and antibacterials commonly used in toothpaste, soap and detergent.
Swartz and Unisa Professor Bhekie Mamba lead the research, while University of the Western Cape Dr. Thabo Nkambule was a researcher.
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