A research partnership between the University of Saskatchewan and the City of Saskatoon has identified recreational drugs and industrial chemicals in both Saskatoon’s Wastewater Treatment Plant and the South Saskatchewan River.
Led by USask’s principal investigator, Dr. Markus Brinkmann, the team studied Saskatoon’s wastewater throughout 2020, finding drugs such as painkillers, anti-epileptics, beta-blockers, antibiotics, as well as methamphetamine, insecticides, and fabric and plastic dyes.
“These results provide important insights, as stresses on our freshwater resources are expected to increase due to various factors driven largely by climate change,” announced Brinkmann in a statement from USask’s School of Environment and Sustainability. “The need to protect these increasingly sensitive freshwater ecosystems will only become more apparent,” he added.
Brinkmann told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix that the amount of the painkiller naproxen discovered by researchers more than doubled under wastewater surveillance early in the pandemic, aligning with other testing reported by Statistics Canada. Also, other chemicals such as lidocaine, typically used in dentists’ offices for minor surgeries, essentially vanished from the system as clinics closed under COVID-19, he said.
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Researchers noted that the levels of pharmaceuticals in the WWTP’s effluent were high enough to pose a risk to aquatic organisms in the South Saskatchewan River; however, it was unlikely to pose a toxicological risk following dilution in the river water.
Brinkmann noted that the results of the research will serve as a baseline for future projects around the need for future mitigation of pharmaceutical chemicals. They will also look at processes to reduce chemicals through the effluent process and study how pharmaceuticals may affect sludge in the WWTP, which is stabilized and applied to farmland as fertilizer.
The City of Saskatoon’s WWTP manager, Mike Sadowski, was also a lead on the research project. He said that the city is “taking steps toward protecting and conserving the South Saskatchewan River” by partnering with USask on the wastewater surveillance project. Otherwise, he added, there aren’t any regulations on pharmaceutical contaminants under Canada’s Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulation, or restrictions in the provincial permit that WWTPs operate under.
The joint research project placed Saskatoon on a list of 50 international projects named to the 2021 Smart 50.