A new study by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Medical Center shows that eating vegetables and fruits grown in soils irrigated with reclaimed wastewater exposes consumers to minute quantities of carbamazepine, an anti-epileptic drug commonly detected in wastewater effluents.
Fresh water scarcity worldwide has led to increased use of reclaimed wastewater, as an alternative source for crop irrigation. But the ubiquity of pharmaceuticals in treated effluents has raised concerns over the potential exposure for consumers to drug contaminants via treated wastewater.
Israel is a world-leader in wastewater reuse and relies heavily on treated wastewater for irrigation. According to Haaretz, 325,000 acres of land was approved for irrigation with treated wastewater in 2015.
“In a randomized controlled trial we have demonstrated that healthy individuals consuming reclaimed wastewater-irrigated produce excreted carbamazepine and its metabolites in their urine, while subjects consuming fresh water-irrigated produce excreted undetectable or significantly lower levels of carbamazepine,” said Prof. Ora Paltiel, Director of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, who led the research.
The study followed 34 men and women divided into two groups. The first group was given reclaimed wastewater-irrigated produce for the first week, and freshwater-irrigated vegetables in the following week. The second group consumed the produce in reverse order.
The volunteers consumed the produce, which included tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lettuce, according to their normal diet and drank bottled water throughout the study to neutralize water contamination.
The researchers measured carbamazepine levels in the fresh produce and in the participants’ urine. To begin with, the urinary levels of carbamazepine differed in their quantifiable concentration, with some participants having undetectable levels. Following seven days of consuming reclaimed water-irrigated produce, all members of the first group exhibited quantifiable levels of carbamazepine, while in the second group the distribution remained unchanged from baseline. Levels of carbamazepine excretion were markedly higher in the first group versus the second.
Levels of carbamazepine detected in the participant’s urine were about 50,000 times lower than levels found in a patient taking the drug.
However, Prof. Paltiel also explained that the levels of carbamazepine detected in the participant’s urine were about 50,000 times lower than levels found in a patient taking the drug.
“This study demonstrates ‘proof of concept’ that human exposure to pharmaceuticals occurs through ingestion of commercially available produce irrigated with treated wastewater, providing data which could guide policy and risk assessments,” said research co-author Professor Benny Chefetz from the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University and the Director of the Hebrew University Center of Excellence in Agriculture and Environmental Health.
Further research will be done looking into groups that might be at increased risk from residual pharmaceuticals passed on by vegetables and fruit. These include pregnant women, children and people who consume a lot of vegetables such as vegans and vegetarians.
The journal article can be found here: pubs.acs.org