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The COVID-19 pandemic changed how Saskatoon residents used prescription and illicit drugs: researchers


Saskatoon researchers have found evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic changed how people consumed pharmaceutical and illicit drugs.

A team led by Markus Brinkmann of the University of Saskatchewan School and Environment and Sustainability studied the city’s wastewater treatment plant and the river throughout 2020.

“We have observed differences in chemical use patterns,” Brinkmann told CTV News in an email.

  • Lidocaine, a local anesthetic used by dentists and for minor surgeries, was absent from the wastewater during the initial lockdown, likely since most of those procedures were non-urgent care and were postponed.
  • Methamphetamine was also absent, likely because the drug supply was disrupted.
  • Guaifenesin, the active ingredient in Mucinex, a cough suppressor, started showing up post-lockdown. Brinkmann said he has read on online forums that Mucinex has been popular among front-line workers to suppress coughs and is used in clinical settings to relieve COVID-19 patients.

The results also raise questions about the health of the river in light of the effects of climate change.

“The levels we have measured are not high enough to be likely to acutely impact aquatic organisms living in the river. But that does not mean that there are no chronic, long-term implications that might manifest over longer time scales,” Brinkmann said.

“Also, this assessment does not explicitly account for combined stressors. For example, stress caused by the chemicals might coincide with stress caused by high nutrient levels, high temperatures, and low dissolved oxygen, which can all happen when flows in the river are low (such as those we have seen this year).

“So the added chemical stress from the pharmaceuticals might be what is pushing the organisms over the edge.”

Plant manager Mike Sadowski said in a news release that there are no federal regulations on pharmaceutical contaminants in wastewater effluent, or restrictions in the provincial permit under which the plant operates.

“However, the city is taking steps toward protecting and conserving the South Saskatchewan River by partnering with professor Brinkmann’s team in this regard.”

Brinkmann said the results of their study will serve as a baseline for any future mitigation of these pharmaceutical chemicals.

The team plans to look at processes to reduce of these chemicals through the effluent process.

They’ll also study how the pharmaceuticals affect sludge in the plant, which is stabilized and applied to farmland as fertilizer. Top Stories

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