Traces Of Drugs, Including Meth, Found In Baltimore's Streams

Humans' drug abuse is so bad that it is affecting nature now.

No, no one’s going to get high from drinking from the stream but researchers in the United States found a mix of pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs (including a byproduct of heroin use) in the water in Gwynns Falls, Baltimore.

The scientists also checked two streams in the Oregon Ridge watershed, a largely forested area north of the city.

Like it or not, amphetamine and methamphetamine have found their way in to our water and are messing with the growth and development of organisms in local streams.  

Amphetamine is used to treat ADHD and is a "potentially illicit drug" because people often abuse it.

Methamphetamine — also known as meth, crystal, chalk or ice  is an extremely addictive stimulant drug.

So, how do drugs get in to a town’s water supply?

  • Flushed down the toilet by users
  • Through fecal waste
  • Limited filtering systems at wastewater treatment plants
  • Leaks in the sewers

In Baltimore’s case, researchers believe the last is more likely to be the cause.

The presence is enough to modify the base of the food web that supports fish and other aquatic creatures in the area.

“We understand how they got there, but once they’re there we don’t understand what they do,” said Emma Rosi-Marshall, co-author of the study and a freshwater ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.

The drugs found in the Oregon Ridge watershed included caffeine, a legal stimulant; antihistamine, which is used to treat allergies; acetaminophen, an active ingredient in over-the-counter and prescription pain medicines; and morphine, an opioid pain medication but also a breakdown product from ingesting heroin.

During their research, the scientists created an artificial stream and laced it with the same levels of drugs they had found in the Baltimore water and saw signs of altered development and suppressed the growth of biofilms  food for aquatic insects, small fish and other organisms. The aquatic insects developed more quickly, emerging from their crawling life stage to flying adults much earlier than insects kept in untreated artificial stream systems.

“Baltimore is not unusual,” Rosi-Marshall said. Pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs have been found in waters worldwide.

However, she added, more research was needed to understand how those changes occurred and what would be the extent of the damage caused to freshwater ecosystems from society’s escalating use of drugs as well as the country’s crumbling infrastructure.



Though the presence of these elements in the water is not something to panic about, it’s also not something to be brushed under the rug as well. Remember Flint?

The traces of drugs found in Baltimore are not high enough to directly affect humans (yet) but the fact that they change the base of the aquatic food web is serious enough in the long run.

These small insects and organisms are eaten by bigger animals and hence enter the food cycle and are bound to spread through the food cycle. If it goes unchecked and the levels keep rising, who knows what might happen?

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