Unisa water tests reveal startling clues about health and lifestyles in SA

Prof Bhekie Mamba (Executive Dean: CSET) opening the water research seminar

Traces of heroin, cocaine, statins, fibrins, and other drugs, both medicinal and recreational, are showing up in treated wastewater in Gauteng, providing more than a few clues about the health status and lifestyles of the population.

Unisa water researchers have started testing the waters at strategic points in the province’s wastewater treatment system. Preliminary results point to the presence of some “contaminants of emerging concern”—meaning chemicals not previously detected in water or only discovered in insignificant levels.

Some of these results were revealed during a seminar on water research held at Unisa’s Science Campus during the university’s Research & Innovation Week, which ran from 26 February to 2 March 2018.

Speaking on the topic of emerging micropollutants in South Africa, Prof Titus Msagati of Unisa’s Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (NanoWS) research unit described some of the work his team had been doing in testing treated wastewater. This is water that has already been used by households and industries and is treated at wastewater plants before being discharged back into rivers or dams.

Anti-cholesterol and psychoactive drugs show up

Msagati said that in July and August 2017, a NanoWS team had taken water samples from the effluents of Daspoort wastewater treatment plant and the Apies River in Tshwane. They were testing for the presence of various compounds, including those found in lipid-lowering (anti-cholesterol) drugs such as statins and fibrins, as well as in azole antifungals and psychoactive drugs such as cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and the like.

“Those compounds are there. They were found—and plenty,” Msagati said, adding that compounds from one anti-cholesterol drug has been found in very high concentrations. “We also found plasticisers, vermicides, insect repellent, analgesics, and pesticides.” This shows that the wastewater treatment plants are not able to remove these compounds, presumably due to the fact that they were not designed to deal with such compounds.

Earlier, in September 2016, the Unisa team had tested samples of untreated water from the Hennops and Jukskei rivers and Hartebeespoort Dam.

They had found a range of compounds from pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) in the water samples. These included antibiotics such as ampicillin and ciprofloxacin, pain medication such as ibuprofen, the hormone testosterone and various azole antifungals.

Currently, there are no water monitoring and treatment standards for many contaminants of emerging concern, which is why the Unisa tests are among the first being done in the field.

Such testing is extremely expensive, however, and no organisation on its own can monitor the water supply for new contaminants. “We need to come together collectively, as industry, government, academia and the community, including NGOs,” Msagati said.

New study to target biggest chemical culprits

While Unisa’s testing efforts have so far focused on a few sites in Gauteng, the team will soon be participating in a larger study to identify the 20 emerging contaminants that South Africa should be targeting for monitoring and action.

These contaminants flow into the country’s rivers and dams from a variety of sources, including abattoirs, hospitals, communities, factories, fish farms, and land farms, according to Chris Swartz, a water use expert from Chris Swartz Water Utilization Engineers.

Speaking at the Unisa water seminar, Swartz said the 20 chemicals being targeted on a priority list that was drawn up included pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and disinfectants. Examples are flame retardants, X-ray contrast fluid, the synthetic hormone EE2, pesticides such as atrazine and simazine, natural chemicals such as caffeine, and antibacterials such as triclosan, which are commonly used in consumer products such as toothpaste, soap and detergent.

The three-year study, which the Water Research Commission (WRC) is funding, will cover water treatment plants in 25 cities, towns and villages in all the provinces of the country.

Swartz is the project leader of the research study; the team includes Unisa’s Prof Bhekie Mamba and Dr Thabo Nkambule, together with researchers from the University of the Western Cape.

*By Clairwyn van der Merwe

Publish date: 2018/03/15