Levels of the illegal drug ecstasy were found to have spiked in rivers near a major music festival in Taiwan that draws more than a half-million revelers annually. Researchers said they're concerned not only about widespread use of the drug at the festival, but its potential effect on aquatic life.
A report published Wednesday in Environmental Science & Technology found that during the outdoor music fest "Spring Scream," held each April in southern Taiwan -- attended by approximately 600,000 "pop music fans and youth" -- local rivers show a significant rise in illicit drugs, including MDMA (also known as "ecstasy" or "Molly") and ketamine, as well as caffeine, acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine.
"Drug abuse and addiction during the youth festival, and consequent environmental issue are of concern," the researchers write.
The study examines the impact of "emerging contaminants" -- which includes drugs and personal care products like skin cleaner or deodorant -- that wind up in wastewater treatment facilities. These treatment facilities, the scientists say, aren't designed to remove these chemicals, so trace amounts can wind up in the water supply and soil, harming the ecosystem.
"The widespread occurrence of these contaminants in freshwater is potentially a major problem with consequences that are yet to be fully understood," the researchers write. "Although some of the compounds have been proposed to be included in regulatory lists, there is relatively little information on their ecotoxicological effects, and until now, they have escaped regulation."
Some pharmaceutical contaminants have already been found to affect biological diversity and cause behavioral changes in some fish, and may pose "moderate to high risk" to plants and animals in a contaminated area, the researchers note.
In recent years, scientists have been analyzing the world's sewage to track the consumption of various substances, an analysis called "sewage epidemiology." One study examining illicit drugs in two wastewater treatment plants near Albany, New York, detected cocaine in 93 percent of untreated water samples.
Another study found that the Belgian city of Antwerp had the highest traces of cocaine, amphetamine, cannabis, and ecstasy in sewage of more than 40 European cities tested.