By T. V. Padma
Studies increasingly point to the presence of pharmaceutical and personal care products in urban stretches along the Ganges River, which originates pristine in the Himalayas but is heavily polluted with industrial effluents and domestic sewage when it empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Researchers from Doon University, Dehra Dun, India, have reported the presence of 15 pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) in the Ganges near two Hindu pilgrimage cities. These pollutants include caffeine, anti-inflammatory drugs, common antibiotics, beta blockers, antibacterials, and insect repellents.
Over three seasons, Doon scientists studied the river waters of two cities in the rapidly industrializing Himalayan state of Uttarakhand: Haridwar, where the Ganges enters India's northern plains from the Himalayas, and Rishikesh, 21 kilometers away. Haridwar and Rishikesh, with a combined population of 400,000, attract an estimated 20 million tourists and pilgrims annually.
In particular, the scientists analyzed the water at its point of entry into the two cities and at sites before its entry into a sewage treatment plant and after sewage treatment. The study could provide useful baseline data for forecasting and evaluating the efficiency of future antipollution measures of the river basin restoration program, the authors added.
"Compared to previous studies that analyzed samples along various locations along the Ganges, this is the first comprehensive, intensive study in a particular city along the river," said Surendra Suthar, an associate professor at Doon University and one of the study's authors.
PPCP concentrations near the cities varied, with the highest measured concentration being 1,104.84 nanograms per liter. Researchers found higher PPCP concentrations at the lower, more populated reaches of the river. The concentrations, especially of anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics, were also higher in winter, possibly because of decreased biodegradation associated with lower temperatures and inadequate sunlight, the report said. The study also showed that PPCPs in the region were associated with a higher risk of algal blooms and a moderate risk to the health of river fish.
"The high load of PPCPs during summer and winter could be attributed to the excessive tourist visits for recreational activities and spiritual congregations during these seasons," according to the report, to be published in Chemosphere in April.
Paucity of Studies
There are few studies on PPCPs in Indian rivers. "Such studies are expensive, as they require sophisticated instruments," Suthar explained.
"Sewage, treated or untreated, flowing into the rivers is the main polluter," said Keshava Balakrishna, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, Manipal Institute of Technology. Sewage and effluent have long been associated with chemical pollution, as people flush medicines, cosmetics, and hygiene products down the toilet or throw them in the trash. The waste ends up in water treatment plants and landfills and then makes its way into water supplies such as the Ganges.
"Aquaculture, agricultural farms, and pharma industries can be other important sources," Balakrishna added.
In 2020, Balakrishna's team reported the presence of PPCPs in two tropical rivers in southwestern India, the Swarna and Netravati, which empty into the Arabian Sea.
A 2017 review by a team of scientists including Balakrishna in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety found higher levels of pharmaceuticals in Indian water treatment plants compared with developed countries. The review also pointed out the paucity of studies in India on the fate of pharmaceutical products in water bodies and their impact on human health, "despite India being one of the world leaders in pharmaceutical production and consumption."
The 2017 review reported that studies from other countries indicated that PPCPs in rivers could accumulate in aquatic organisms and enter the food web. Antibiotic resistance among microbes is the main threat to human and ecological health, Balakrishna said. "Low doses of antibiotics in a river can be consumed by pathogens in the river, [which then] become superbugs, and multiply."
Suthar, too, cautions about both toxicity in the food web and the emergence of antibiotic resistance in pathogens contaminating river waters. "If we add up all the individual contaminant levels for 1 liter of water, the collective dose will be very toxic, especially if they bioaccumulate in organisms, including some rare species in the Ganges such as the Ganges dolphins," he said. "And microbes in the waters will become resistant to the drugs."
A 2019 global review of PPCPs in rivers reported that "no global legal maximum environmental concentrations exist for pharmaceutically active compounds," despite poor understanding of the combined acute and chronic effects of PPCPs on flora, fauna, and human health.
The global review went on to say that primary and secondary wastewater treatment plants "generally are unable to remove these pollutants, leading to their migration into drinking water supplies," and recommended advanced tertiary water treatment processes, such as oxidation and adsorption. It also suggested advanced methods for accurate and continuous monitoring of pharmaceuticals in the environment and strict regulations for effluent release.
In India, most antipollution efforts are directed at surface water treatment and focus on parameters such as chemical oxygen demand, biological oxygen demand, nitrates, and bacteria, said Suthar. "We need a policy that looks at PPCPs too."
The source of the Ganges is the Gangotri Glacier, high in the Himalayas less than 200 kilometers from Haridwar. The recent findings on PPCPs in the Ganges add to research documenting chemical and microplastic pollution throughout the mountain range, including the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, said Kimberley Miner, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and a research assistant professor at the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine. "Our team found PFAS [polyfluoroalkyl substances], DDT [dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane], and toxic metals on the mountain, suggesting that the chemical footprint left by trekkers may be as large as the visible trash and pollution footprint."
The new Ganges research also echoes recent studies tracing PPCPs on European glaciers, where researchers traced chemical pollutants to the use of perfumes in personal care products like soap. Perfumed soaps and ointments are also associated with PPCPs in Haridwar and Rishikesh, where mass bathing events are part of tourism and pilgrimage activities.
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
An oil spill in the endangered Ganges river dolphin breeding grounds located in southeast Bangladesh has been called a "major disaster" by environmentalists, reports Agence-France Presse (AFP).
Ganges River dolphins are in crisis after a tanker carrying 1,200 tonnes of diesel collided with another ship on th… https://t.co/Z0hALyLWs4— RiverDolphins (@RiverDolphins)1572247855.0
A tanker carrying 1,200 tonnes of diesel collided with another ship in the Karnaphuli river near Chittagong port last week, spreading 10 tonnes of diesel across 16 kilometers, port authority spokesman Omar Faruk told the publication. The Department of Energy issued a fine for polluting the environment, reported local media agency Dhaka Tribune. The Marine Bulletin reports that as of Oct. 26 about eight tonnes have been collected.
Around 60 Ganges river dolphins (Platanista gangetica gangetica) use the area as a breeding ground and could inhale toxic petroleum vapors when surfacing to breathe. At least 20 dolphins in the last four years have died of unnatural causes including pollution in the river and in the adjacent Halda river, reports AFP.
The Ganges river dolphin is one of just three freshwater dolphins in the world and is unique to two river systems in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. A 2014 study found that their population has dwindled dramatically since their 4,000 to 5,000 population in the 1980s. Today, the total population is around 2,000 individuals, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Declared by the government of India as a National Aquatic Animal in 2009, the World Wildlife Fund notes that the species is a key indication of ecosystem health but are largely endangered due to human activities.
Ganges river dolphin habitat is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and is used for fishing. Individuals are often caught as bycatch after becoming tangled in fishing nets used for shrimp and fish. They are also hunted for meat and oil, which is both used medicinally and to attract catfish for fisheries.
One of the biggest threats to the Ganges river dolphin is pollution. The WWF reports that the essentially blind cetaceans have likely lost a majority of their eyesight due to pollution in their home waters.
"Pollution levels are a problem, and are expected to increase with the development of intensive modern industrial practices in the region," wrote the organization. "Compounds such as organochlorine and butyltin found in the tissues of Ganges River dolphins are a cause for concern about their potential effects on the subspecies."
In addition to oil spills, industrial and agricultural runoff seeps into their marine ecosystem with an annual input of more than 8,000 tonnes of pesticides and nearly 5.4 million tonnes of fertilizers that are used in their region, according to WWF. A 2016 report outlined the threat from "unabated dumping of toxic industrial and household waste," reported the Dhaka Tribune at the time.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
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Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
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Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
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Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
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Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Johnny Wood
The Ganges is a lifeline for the people of India, spiritually and economically. On its journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, it supports fishermen, farmers and an abundance of wildlife.
The river and its tributaries touch the lives of roughly 500 million people. But having flowed for millennia, today it is reaching its capacity for human and industrial waste, while simultaneously being drained for agriculture and municipal use.
Here are some of the challenges the river faces.
Dolphins in Peril
The revival of the Ganges river dolphin in Barak river hinges on co-operation between India and Bangladesh for cons… https://t.co/Zy7VglNoGQ— Mongabay India (@Mongabay India)1556553709.0
Large schools of freshwater dolphins, known as Ganges River dolphins, were once found along the river. Now they swim in small groups or alone, and have become endangered due to pollution, dams, irrigation projects and the dredging of new shipping channels.
More than 1 billion litres of raw sewage flow into the river every day. In places, the water's bacteria count reaches 3,000 times the limit declared safe for bathing by the World Health Organization.
The first of many projects w/ @EndPlasticWaste. Lessons learned here will create an impactful, economical & scalabl… https://t.co/dwPBNOvsmU— Jim Fitterling (@Jim Fitterling)1566303593.0
Plastic and industrial waste, such as waste water from the leather tanneries that sit on the banks of the Ganges, are another cause of pollution.
Lack of Water
Plastic, industrial effluent, and 260 millions gallons of untreated sewage poison the Ganges every day. But the mos… https://t.co/SQQPbtXsfA— Out of Eden (@Out of Eden)1565377223.0
But perhaps the most worrying problem facing the river is its increasing lack of water. Water for irrigation is being removed faster than the rainy season can replenish it.
Dams and Diversions
#Manipur:- Proposed Tipaimukh #dam – a controversial political issue between #India & #Bangladesh – could be last n… https://t.co/qgupsR3ZIL— SANDRP (@SANDRP)1556868551.0
The Ganges is being throttled by more than 300 dams and diversions, with many more blocking its tributaries, stopping the natural ebb and flow of the river.
Every monsoon, flooding inflames tensions between India and Nepal, with angry residents on both sides blaming those… https://t.co/wUg0meABrW— BBC News India (@BBC News India)1563245962.0
Climate change is making the monsoon rains unpredictable, increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events like droughts, and leaving the fishermen of the Ganges with dwindling catches.
Reposted with permission from our media associate World Economic Forum.
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