Frequency of detection of antibiotics in the Huangpu River, which flows through Shanghai, was almost 100%. Pic: AP.

A study recently published by Chinese experts has shown that of the country’s rivers and lakes contain worrying amounts of antibiotics, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals.

The findings of a joint study by the East China University of Science and Technology together with Tongji and Tsinghua universities paint a scary picture of water quality in China, one that once again highlights the environmental threats faced by the People’s Republic.

Scientists have tracked pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in the country’s surface water. Their conclusion is that “so far, about 158 kinds of PPCPs have been studied and researched in China’s rivers, lakes and other natural water environments. Among those, 20 types have been reported as being the most common.”

A particularly serious problem are antibiotics. “So far about 68 kinds of antibiotics have been detected in China’s surface water, including sulfonamides, quinolones, tetracyclines, macrolides, Beta-lactam and other six major types,” says the study. The other 90 non-antibiotic chemicals are equally exotic – and worrisome. Among others, they include “analgesics, anticonvulsants, antihypertensives, lipid-lowering drugs, disinfectant, hormones.”

The study also reported that in the case of the Pearl River – in Guangdong – and the Huangpu River – which passes through Shanghai – the frequency of the detection of one antibiotic comes close to 100 percent, meaning that virtually all the water is contaminated. Quantities are also alarming: according to Xinhua, “in some rivers, every liter of sample water was found to have several hundred nanograms of antibiotics, compared with less than 20 nanograms in the water of developed countries.”

One of the causes of this phenomenon is that China is a major producer of PPCPs. “China produces annually about 1300 kinds of chemicals and cosmetics, and the annual production of antibiotics PPCPs is over 33,000 tons,” says the report, which concludes that this “may be an important reason for the high density of antibiotics in the water environment.”

As for antibiotics, the reports points out that the country is “one of the world’s most serious abuser of antibiotics. 70 percent of China’s drug production are antibiotics, while in western countries the production of antibiotics only contribute 30 percent to the total drug production.”

A major issue connected with the spread of these substances in the environment is that they increase resistance to antibiotics, reducing their effect when used to treat diseases. Xinhua quoted Professor Yu Gang of Tsinghua University as saying that “antibiotics in water, when taken by people, will cause drug-resistance and reduce the effect of drugs in case of ailments.” The professor told China’s national news agency that PPCPs are like invisible enemies to humans, which “once discharged into nature, [..] will be taken in by people via food or water and accumulate in our bodies, impacting on future generations.”

The threat posed by PPCPs appears to be yet another side of a more general issue: the degradation which is wrecking China’s environment. An official report published in April this year showed that a fifth of China’s farmland is polluted. Water scarcity has been a problem for a long time. The air in all major cities – and in smaller ones, too – is often filled with PM 2.5, the tiny, dangerous particulate which damages human health. Faced with all this, the government has declared a ‘war on pollution’. But – how to put it? – the enemy is literally everywhere.