How Did Beta Blockers End Up in My Herbs?

Are pharmaceuticals in our wastewater a problem? What happens when this treated wastewater is used in agriculture and to water crops? Do the drugs become a part of the food cycle?

Can drugs in treated wastewater be absorbed by plants? Photo credit: Pixabay
Can drugs in treated wastewater be absorbed by plants? Photo credit: Pixabay

JKU chemist Wolfgang Buchberger says "half a pharmacy" is in our wastewater. There may only be trace amounts, but what happens when treated wastewater is used to water the food we eat? Although not yet common practice in Austria, as the climate changes, this could become an issue, as it currently is in dry Israel. In some cases, large vegetable producers such as Italy and Spain also struggle with water shortages. So, what happens when the water used for crops contains trace amounts of drugs? Do they absorb trace amounts of active ingredients? And if so, how are is this distributed in the tissue? Does it accumulate, metabolize or degrade in any way? And could active pharmaceutical ingredients impact plant growth?

A joint study conducted with the University of Brno as part of an Austrian Science Fund project looks at whether or not plants absorb anti-inflammatory agents, such as acetylsalicylic acid, diclofenac or ibuprofen. Buchberger reassuringly added: "We are detecting overall low quantities of antipyretic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory agents at the wastewater treatment plants, meaning limit values have not yet been specified."  This means there is no acute level of danger.

This type of research is currently in its infancy and Buchberger is conducting pioneering work in the area. Now that there are a number of methods to support environmental analytical practices, scientists will be better able to test plants for trace amounts of drugs and metabolites. The findings could be important for the next steps and worthwhile for toxicology experts, leading to methods that could improve the technology at wastewater treatment plants.