Rivers Flow With Ecstasy After Taiwanese Music Festival, And It's Bad News for Fish

Music Festival Drugs Pollute Rivers
Sewage treatment plants aren’t equipt to fully remove drugs from wastewater. mm13450121/Flickr

People do a lot of drugs at music festivals. Then, people pee them out—and it could be messing with aquatic life.

A recent study published inEnvironmental Science & Technology found that during and directly after a major pop music festival in Taiwan, levels of party drugs like MDMA (also known as "molly," and the main component in "ecstasy") and ketamine rose in a nearby river. Caffeine, acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine levels in the river spiked too.

Drugs in Taiwan river chart
American Chemical Society

The combined partying efforts of the roughly 600,000 people who turned out for the 2011 "Spring Scream" festival dropped a sudden, heavy chemical load on the river, and researchers worry it and other events like it could do lasting damage to coastal ecosystems.

Sewage treatment plants aren't equipped to fully remove "emerging contaminants" like recreational drugs, medications and personal care products from water before it is discharged back into rivers, oceans and other bodies of water. The researchers warn that as populations grow in the coming decades, the environmental threat posed by these chemicals could reach dire levels.

"The widespread occurrence of these contaminants in freshwater is potentially a major problem with consequences that are yet to be fully understood," the researchers wrote. "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."

The field of sewage epidemiology, or the study of chemicals present in human waste, is growing rapidly as a means to understand drug habits across populations. Testing for drugs in public water supplies has already revealed several interesting trends. For example, a study last year found that amphetamine levels in the wastewater at a Washington college campus "go through the roof" during final exam time.