John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Scientists are pointing the finger at a giant music festival.
If the rivers in southern Taiwan have ever put you in a strangely delightful mood, there's a good reason—turns out they're flowing with the drug Ecstasy. All right, so guzzling these murky waterways might not provide enough MDMA for a high. (It should have interesting effects on the gastrointestinal system.) But there's enough of the drug floating around to be detectable, as scientists at the National Sun Yat-sen University have discovered.
During one week in April 2011, the researchers identified in southern rivers the presence of not just ecstasy but ketamine, codeine, pseudoephedrine, caffeine, and prescription drugs for high cholesterol and urinary tract infections, according to a new paper in Environmental Science & Technology.
Barring an evolving party scene among Taiwanese fish, there must be a human source for these chemicals, and the researchers believe they've found it: Spring Scream, a wildly popular music-and-culture festival held each year in Kenting National Park. "[The park] hosts the largest youth festival (Spring Scream, which takes place in several venues distributed all within the Kenting area), visited by approximately 600,000 pop-music fans and youth," they write. "Therefore, the tremendous number of tourists in the Kenting area could serve as the main sources of [drugs] in the surrounding aquatic environments."
The doped rivers are a source of concern for a couple reasons, say the scientists. One, there's the issue of what they call the "problems of drug abuse in the youth festival" (note this study was partly funded by Taiwan's Ministry of Education).
That aside, there are also environmental worries. Many wastewater-treatment plants aren't designed to handle a growing class of pollutants known as "emerging contaminants," or ECs, which includes drugs as well as personal-care products. Their release into nature could be harming aquatic ecosystems. Say the researchers: "The known environmental effects of some of the ECs include the reduction of macroinvertebrate diversity in rivers and behavioral changes in mosquito fish."
Taiwan's druggy rivers are just the latest example of how humanity's medicine chest is spilling out all over the place. To name just a few examples, scientists have also detected Prozac in the Great Lakes, estrogen in U.S. drinking water, and cocaine floating high in the air above Rome.