Drugs, Viruses and Bacteria

A translation by Judith Turcotte.

A variety of drugs are found in the St. Lawrence River. In a recent study by the Université de Montréal, we learn that we find caffeine, carbamazepine, diclofenac and ibuprofen in its waters. The carbamazepine is an anti-convulsive drug used in the treatment of epilepsy and diclofenac is an anti-inflammatory drug. The municipalities’ wastewater facilities are not designed for the elimination of pharmaceutical products. The good news, according to the author of the study, Sébastien Sauvé, is the construction of an ozonation project which will be able to destroy the viruses, the antibiotics and 80% of drug-like molecules.

This ozonation plant is an ambitious and complex project. Once completed, it will be the most important facility of its kind on the planet if it sees the light of day. The project was launched more than 15 years ago in 2008. The construction has faced many difficulties and its inauguration has been postponed to 2028. According to La Presse, the project is in the assembly stage; however, Montréal is incapable of finding an organization to complete the project. No company has responded to the call for tenders. The project was to cost 200 million dollars fifteen years ago. Today, the amount budgeted is 947 million dollars. Is anyone surprised?

The City of Montréal requested aid from the provincial and federal governments in completing the project which benefits both the biodiversity and the people who live on the shores of the St. Lawrence River downstream from Montréal. In the Université de Montréal’s study which I referred to at the beginning, the contamination of Montréal’s wastewater is visible up to 70 km downstream as far as Lac Saint-Pierre. The study states that the result should not surprise anyone considering the fact that two million people live on the Island of Montréal. I would like to recall that the water of the St. Lawrence River comes from the basin of the Great lakes where more than forty million people live. In the United States, hundreds of new chemical products are discharged into the water every year.

There is not only pharmaceutical waste that is discharged into the river’s water, there are also bacteria and viruses. During the pandemic, we learned that the presence of the COVID-19 virus had been detected in the St. Lawrence. Another virus present in the river is that of the avian influenza. This virus attacks the harbour seals and aquatic birds in the river’s estuary. Several hundred birds were recently found dead.

The most important bacteria are the fecal coliforms. (E. coli) that come from the untreated wastewater discharges. The idea that there are bacteria, drugs and viruses in the river’s water is not a revelation. However the elected municipal officials are not interested in making noise. On the contrary, over the past few years, as a distraction, they announce the opening of beaches therefore implying that the river must be suitable for bathing. Today, these beaches are only open a few days in the summer due to a high level of fecal coliforms. And what about the other pollutants?

A good example of a project ignoring the quality of water is the beach on Île Charron in Longueuil. The beach required an investment of $2.6M and has now been closed since 2020. According to a city spokesperson, the beach would need an investment of $250,000 to meet acceptable regulations but the city has decided to invest this amount elsewhere. What a fine example of a bureaucratic statement. A bit of transparency on the real reasons for this beach closing would be appreciated.

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