Drugs on tap: Ultratrace detection

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  • Published: Jun 15, 2012
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Chemometrics & Informatics
thumbnail image: Drugs on tap: Ultratrace detection

Global revelations


Coffee, caffeine, tap water analysis

Spanish researchers have tested tap drinking water for various drugs, both legal and illicit, in Europe, Japan and South America. Their analysis revealed the presence of caffeine, nicotine, cotinine, cocaine and its metabolite benzoylecgonine, methadone and its metabolite EDDP.

Rather bizarre extrapolations about the presence of the serotonin reuptake inhibitor Prozac in water and the development of "autism" in fish hit the headlines recently and were quickly debunked by science bloggers around the world. Nevertheless, the presence of pharmaceuticals in the water supply is an ongoing issue and has been during the last two decades of this author's reporting on the subject and for many years before that. Ludicrous extrapolations aside it is important to know what drugs are present, in what quantities and whether any particular parts of the globe are affected more significantly than others.

Rosa Boleda, Maria Huerta-Fontela, Francesc Ventura of AGBAR and Teresa Galceran of the University of Barcelona, Spain, analysed a total of seventy samples of drinking water for non-controlled and illicit drugs. 43 samples were taken from Spanish cities, 15 from seven other European countries, three from Japan and nine from seven different Latin American countries. It was previously well known that illicit drugs are increasingly present in wastewater and surface waters. "Initially, it may seem surprising that these compounds are found in water, but it should be remembered that the amounts of drugs of abuse consumed worldwide are similar to those of pharmaceuticals and therefore we should expect their concentrations in the aquatic environment to be similar too," the team says. "Human consumption and excretion lead to parent compounds and/or their metabolites reaching wastewater treatment plants," they add.

However, their report on various compounds in drinking water, as opposed to waste water paints a somewhat different picture. They report that caffeine present in various beverages including coffee and nicotine from tobacco products were present at measurable levels. The Spanish caffeine level was 50 nanograms per litre, while worldwide this was just 19 ng/l. The figures for nicotine were 13 and 19 ng/l, respectively.

However, the levels of illicit drugs in drinking water were very low, despite the occasional media scare story about cocaine and opiates in the water supply. "Illicit drugs were sparsely present and usually at ultratrace levels," the team says; less than 1 ng/l. They found cocaine at a level of just 0.4 (in Spain) and 0.3 ng/l (worldwide). They were unable to identify any opiates in any sample, although methadone and its metabolite were frequently detected in ultratrace quantities. The team adds that very few samples tested positive for amphetamines, which is presumably due to their reactivity of chlorine used in water disinfectants. They did not record the presence of cannabinoids (from cannabis/marijuana) nor the hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD. Other drugs of abuse, such as ketamine, the synthetic opiate fentanyl and phencyclidine (PCP, also known as angel dust) were also prominent by their absence from the analyses.

Drugs surprise

This is somewhat surprising given that recent estimates on drug use by the United Nations estimates points to perhaps as many as 250 million people aged between 15 and 64 years old using illicit drugs at least once a year. Amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine and opiates, including heroin, being used by tens of millions of people each.

The research has demonstrated the presence of several drugs of abuse in tap water from around the world, although quantities present are at ultratrace levels close to the detection limits of the analytical instrumentation. Some illicit drugs were undetectable although may be present, of course, at concentrations beyond the team's analyses using liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry.

The team adds that, "For non-controlled drugs the levels of caffeine are remarkably low in European samples. For cocaine and related compounds, Latin American levels are substantially higher than those found in other regions of the world." They suggest this could be related to the use of less efficient water treatment in those countries, although there might be another explanation. "To evaluate the real effects associated to continuous exposure at these low concentrations levels, risk assessment studies must be performed," they conclude.

Related Links

Chemosphere, 84, 1601-1616: Evaluation of the presence of drugs of abuse in tap waters

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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