The rise of the pharmaceutical industry and recreational drug abuse in America has disheveled the lives of many citizens over the last few decades. But of late the effects are permeating into our environment. While probing the interaction between our drugs and the environment, US researchers have stumbled upon an interesting discovery – there is meth flowing in the streams of Baltimore, Maryland. And it’s affecting aquatic life in astonishing ways.

Discovery of methamphetamine, or meth (crystal meth), prompted a study where the lead researcher Sylvia, along with her team, of Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, constructed an artificial stream to verify the strange phenomenon.

“We had some evidence that in Baltimore there was some sewage getting into streams, and so we tested for pharmaceuticals,” said Dr Emma J Rosi-Marshall, co-author of the study.

Titled “Occurrence and Potential Biological Effects of Amphetamine on Stream Communities”, the study involved the setup of eight artificial streams. Scientists then introduced one milligram of amphetamine to four of the artificial ponds whereas the other four served as control. The above reported changes in biodiversity were observed via this experiment.

Publishing their insights in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study has revealed the presence of amphetamine and methamphetamine in Baltimore watercourses. In the artificial stream, the researchers included rocks, algae and other naturally occurring creatures to replicate the findings and study the impact of meth in the surroundings. Scientists noticed artificially-induced meth disturbed bacterial populations and hastened fly lifecycles in the streams.

Scientists have observed the leaching of pharmaceuticals into environment for quite some time now. As reported by The New York Times in 2007, deposits of commonly used compounds, including drugs, are widespread in natural water bodies.

How Did The Meth Get There?

The primary conduits for such compounds are our sewage pipeline. In many cases there is no adequate sewage treatment which eliminates pharmaceuticals from the waste water. And that precisely appears to be the case in Baltimore, according to the Baltimorebrew. Untreated sewage could account for up to two-third of the total stream water. The researchers blame the broken city sewage system for the contamination.

The city had a planned deadline to fix their sewage system by the year 2015, which they couldn’t meet. Administrators, guided by federal regulators, have now implemented a strategy to fix the sewage system over the next 15 years, costing 1.2 billion dollars.

In several instances, people dispose their leftover pills into the water drainage, hence the elevated quantities of pharmaceuticals in water. But this intentional disposal cannot account for all of the contaminants; people with methamphetamine are highly unlikely to throw the illegally procured drug down the drains.

Drugs which enter into our system are not always completely metabolized. CNN reports that significant quantities of the drugs we take are excreted out of our system, without being metabolized. One way or another, they then end up in the drainage system. So traces of substance like meth can be screened in significant quantities in sewage.

Health Effects Of Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug which is seldom prescribed for its medical purposes — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Meth affects your system by entering the brain and rapidly producing a feeling of euphoria. The drug can be delivered by eating, smoking, sniffing or injecting. Though one of the most addictive drugs, at clinically prescribed levels, meth is neither addictive nor has significant side effects.

Using this drug for recreational purposes, on the other hand, poses significant health risks. The drug alters the brain at the molecular level and makes the user anxious, confused and insomniac. The drug is responsible for elevating the naturally existing hormone dopamine, which gives a rewarding sensation and is involved in building up addiction. In severe cases, it leads to weight loss, dental issues and skin problems due to compulsive scratching.

One of the authors of the mentioned Environmental Science and Technology article, Emma Rosi-Marshall admitted that ‘we don’t understand what they do’. Although meth may be a new addition, Rosi-Marshall states: “Baltimore is not unusual.”  When it comes to humans, scientists don’t know what such concentrations of drugs like meth can do to humans.

However, according to a WHO survey, the quantities of pharmaceuticals found in water, are a thousand folds lower than what makes up a minimum therapeutic dose. It goes on to state that health risks from such pharmaceuticals are “extremely unlikely”. So if you were wondering whether you should be wary of an overdose by tap water, or contraindications with your regular drugs, rest assured. It is the environment under threat, not you.