High Tide: Controversial Study Finds Evidence of Street Drug in British Drinking Water

Posted in: Drinking Water News, Featured, Global Water News, Water Contamination
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Picture credit: R. Nial Bradshaw

By Jon Fern, staff writer for Save The Water™ | August 7, 2014

A recent study has found traces of cocaine in the public drinking water supply. Present in its metabolised form, benzoylecgonine, the street drug was discovered in samples analysed by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), a section of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), as part of an assessment of pharmaceutical contamination.

The study also found traces of ibuprofen, epilepsy drug carbamazepine, and caffeine.

The doses found in drinking water are too low to pose a threat to health, however, being in the nanogram per litre range, according to Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the UK’s Department of Health.

PHE stated that “intakes of the compounds detected in drinking water are many orders of magnitude lower than levels of therapeutic doses.

“Estimated exposures for most of the detected compounds are at least thousands of times below doses seen to produce adverse effects in animals and hundreds of thousands below human therapeutic doses.

“Thus, the detected pharmaceuticals are unlikely to present a risk to health.”

These findings were widely reported in the British press, with particular emphasis on the detection of cocaine. However, there are some details which did not feature heavily in the headlines.

Firstly, the study also found that naproxen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), was present in the drinking water samples. NSAIDs, including ibuprofen, have been found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It is not known at what concentrations NSAIDs can begin to cause these adverse effects, and even after undergoing the strenuous water treatment process, both naproxen and ibuprofen were present in the supply, showing that the treatment systems currently employed cannot entirely remove these kinds of drugs.

Secondly, although PHE declared that the drinking water supply was safe for human consumption, the study also tested untreated river water and found that it contained high levels of carbamazepine, which is a pharmacologically active and potentially toxic substance capable of causing enzymatic stress in fish. Other substances covered by the report may also pose a risk to freshwater wildlife; benzoylecgonine, for instance, has been found to induce oxidative stress in zebra mussels. If the contaminants present in drinking water are alarming, those present in Britain’s waterways are even more so, being more widely varied and of much higher concentrations.

Thirdly, benzoylecgonine is not always a metabolite of cocaine. According to a media representative of the DWI, the organisation that conducted the original research, benzoylecgonine is also an ingredient of muscle rubs used for the treatment of arthritis, and not necessarily a by-product of cocaine, a suggestion that was largely overlooked by the media.

So is it possible that there are just as many arthritis sufferers as cocaine users in the test area? The fact that other painkillers were found in the same samples is suggestive. However, the report by PHE specifically states that cocaine was one of the compounds tested for, as opposed to one of its metabolites, and even the original research by DWI states that  “An illicit drug and its major metabolite were (also) investigated.”

This is not the first time that benzoylecgonine has been used as a marker to ascertain whether cocaine is present in drinking water. Italy’s Po River was tested for benzoylecgonine in order to ascertain how many cocaine users there were in the region, while a similar study was conducted in the ski town of Saint-Moritz for the same purpose.

The fact that benzoylecgonine is the compound of interest when conducting urine tests for cocaine use further confirms that its presence in drinking water is likely to be indicative of the presence of cocaine.


Boxall, A., et al. 2011. Targeted Monitoring For Human Pharmaceuticals In Vulnerable Source And Final Waters. Drinking Water Inspectorate Project No. WD0805 (Ref DWI 70/2/231). http://dwi.defra.gov.uk/research/completed-research/reports/DWI70_2_231.pdf Accessed: 28th July 2014

Krijthe, B., et al. 2014. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of atrial fibrillation: a population-based follow-up study. BMJ Open 2014;4. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/4/e004059.full Accessed: 28th July 2014

Parolini, M., et al. 2013. Sub-lethal effects caused by the cocaine metabolite benzoylecgonine to the freshwater mussel Dreissena polymorpha. Science of The Total Environment Volume 444, (1): 43–50. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969712015094 Accessed: 28th July 2014

Robjohns, Stephen. 2013. Risk Assessment of Chemical Contaminants in Drinking Water. Public Health England. http://www.publichealthcommunication.org.uk/edcppcp/RiskAssessmentRobjohns2013.pdf Accessed: 28th July 2014

Smith, M., et al. 2011. Urinary Excretion of Ecgonine and Five Other Cocaine Metabolites Following Controlled Oral, Intravenous, Intranasal, and Smoked Administration of Cocaine. J Anal Toxicol. Mar 2010; 34(2): 57–63. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3159558/ Accessed: 28th July 2014

Uncredited. 2005. Italian river ‘full of cocaine’. BBC News, Europe. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4746787.stm Accessed: 28th July 2014

Woolf, Marie. 2014. Cocaine on tap in drinking water. The Sunday Times. http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Health/article1409450.ece?CMP=OTH-gnws-standard-2014_05_10 Accessed: 28th July 2014

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