Research by Taiwanese scientists shows a large music festival on the island resulted in a spike in a slew of chemical contaminants — both over-the-counter and illicit — in nearby waterways.
The findings underscore the potential impact of pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs on the environment — along with the lack of regulations needed to address those threats.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found rivers near the site of the "Spring Scream" event, which draws audiences of 600,000, subsequently contained elevated levels of the controlled substances “Molly” — or ecstasy — and ketamine, as well as increased concentrations of caffeine and acetaminophen.
Those substances are classified as "emerging contaminants," which can end up in water supplies after disposal in drains or following human consumption. Water treatment plants are generally unable to filter such substances, sending them into waterways and surrounding soil.
Although studies of their effects on aquatic wildlife remain in the beginning stages, some substances, according to the report, "have been shown to affect the behavior of fish and to have other adverse effects on the environment."
The study aims to help officials begin mitigating contaminant spikes resulting from large gatherings or other noteworthy events. It also mirrors similar findings of contaminants in the U.S., and showcases the difficulty in updating the nation's antiquated laws regulating toxic substances.
Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey have found evidence of numerous chemicals — from steroids to antidepressants to detergents — in sewage and waterways, while a 2013 study of randomly selected Minnesota lakes found traces of synthetic estrogen, antibiotics, DEET and cocaine.
The growing and evolving list of emerging contaminants is regulated on the federal level by the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that hasn't been updated since -- the only major environmental law to fall under that category. Under the terms of the law, the Environmental Protection Agency has tested only 200 chemicals and regulated five; an estimated 80,000 chemicals are currently used in commerce.
Efforts to overhaul the nation's toxic substances laws saw substantial progress during the last congressional session, but never received a vote on the floor. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois and the chairman of the House's environment subcommittee, has indicated he would likely base a reform effort in the new GOP-controlled Congress on those past discussions.
“I think we’ll try to run that hoop again, maybe not as extensive, but maybe try to get some buy-in from the members who were actively involved," Shimkus said.
But although all sides broadly agree on the need for reform, the same issues that derailed last session's proposal — from chemical industry interests to concerns from environmentally minded Democrats — remain.
"This is a piece of legislation that has sat around and I think will probably sit around until hell freezes over," then-Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, said last spring.