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Drugs in drinking water

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Spanish researchers have found that drinking tapwater may turn us all into passive consumers of drugs of abuse. Illicit drugs are known to occur in waste water and surface water, but this new research offers the first significant evidence that they find their way through purification processes into our drinking water.

The researchers analysed 70 samples of drinking water taken from taps around the world  — 43 from Spanish cities, 15 from seven other European countries, three from Japan and nine from seven Latin American countries.

The team found a range of non-controlled and illicit drugs, albeit at low concentrations. The drugs included caffeine, nicotine and cotinine (a nicotine metabolite), illicit drugs such as cocaine and methadone, and metabolites of both cocaine and methadone.

In samples from Spanish cities the average caffeine level was 50ng/L and the nicotine level was 13ng/L. The figure worldwide was 19ng/L for both substances. For the illicit drugs, concentrations were much lower — usually at “ultratrace” levels close to detection limits. Cocaine, for example, was found at just 0.4ng/L in Spanish samples and 0.3ng/L worldwide. However, cocaine levels in Latin American samples were substantially higher than elsewhere, perhaps because of less efficient water treatment in those countries —?although other explanations cannot yet be discounted.

Few of the samples tested positive for amphetamines (probably because such drugs react with the chlorine used in water disinfection), and the team was unable to identify any opiates apart from methadone and its metabolite. Other drugs that could not be detected included cannabinoids, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine, fentanyl and phencyclidine (PCP or angel dust).

Nevertheless, it is disturbing to learn that we may all be consuming drugs of abuse that have previously passed through other people’s kidneys.

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