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Concentrations have reached “potentially toxic levels” – endangering people, fish and other wildlife, say scientists.
Medications that target hormones, for example, have induced sex changes in marine animals.
Project co-leader Dr John Wilkinson, of York University, said: “Environmental exposure to active pharmaceutical ingredients harms ecosystems and, potentially, human health through mechanisms such as antimicrobial resistance.
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“We’ve known for over two decades now that they make their way into the aquatic environment where they may affect living organisms.” The comprehensive study looked at 258 rivers across the globe – including the Thames in London and Brazil’s Amazon.
It found pharmaceutical pollution is contaminating water on every continent. Some 54 sampling locations were selected in the UK – the Clyde in Glasgow being the worst offender.
The most frequently detected drug in British waterways – found at 69 per cent of the sites – was carbamazepine, prescribed for epilepsy. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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