Damià Barceló: How Our Actions Impact Our Water and the Perception of Chemicals

The Environmental Impact of Covid-19

[Alaina Rumrill] During the Covid-19 pandemic, the widespread adoption of single-use plastics, such as gloves and masks, had a far-reaching impact that may have been underestimated. Dr. Damià Barceló sheds light on this issue, revealing that the surge in plastic waste, driven by the national consumption of personal protective equipment, posed a significant threat to both organisms and the environment. Numerous studies released during this time exposed the detrimental effects of Covid-19 on enzymes in soil and seawater, underscoring the magnitude of the problem [1].

At the peak of the pandemic, an astonishing four to five billion masks were being discarded daily, as highlighted by Dr. Barceló [1]. Masks, comprising not only plastic but also metals and organic chemicals, contribute to environmental pollution. Laboratory tests have indicated that the average mask contains approximately 30 grams of plastic [1]. In addition to personal protective equipment, the surge in indoor activities and reliance on takeout led to an increase in waste from disposable items like to-go boxes. These examples demonstrate the heightened reliance on plastic during the pandemic, driven by concerns for personal safety at the expense of environmental consequences.

Despite the resolution of Covid-19, the adverse effects of plastic pollution continue to worsen over time, as noted by Dr. Barceló. Addressing this sustainability challenge requires a fundamental shift, one that Dr. Barceló identifies as primarily a financial issue. Currently, only a small fraction (10%) of plastics on the market are biodegradable [1]. Most companies don’t see biodegradable plastics as an option because it is so much more expensive than other plastics. However, Dr. Barceló advocates for prioritizing the development and adoption of biodegradable plastics as a viable solution to the problem of single-use plastics. Embracing eco-friendly alternatives represents the crucial initial step toward mitigating the environmental impact of plastic waste [1].

Antibiotic Overuse of Tylenol

Medicine’s Ripple Effect

Amidst the pandemic, a myriad of waste streams emerged, including the inadvertent release of pharmaceuticals into water systems via human excretory waste. With Covid-19 prompting heightened antibiotic usage, particularly in the realm of over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen, both human health and environmental ecosystems faced repercussions [1]. Excessive antibiotic consumption not only poses risks to individuals but also imposes environmental burdens.

Water treatment facilities face significant challenges in eliminating pharmaceutical residues, with many compounds proving resistant to conventional treatment methods [1]. Consequently, these unfiltered pharmaceuticals infiltrate aquatic environments, posing threats to fish biodiversity and species integrity. Of particular concern is the phenomenon of endocrine disruption, where chemicals interfere with hormone regulation, impacting fertility, sexual maturation, growth, stress responses, and cellular health in aquatic organisms [2]. Dr. Damià Barceló is interested in research that delves into the alarming emergence of intersex fish, a phenomenon attributed to water pollution-induced biological changes, first observed in the late 1990s and early 2000s [1]. These breakthrough discoveries implicated industrial pollutants as the catalysts for such transformations, highlighting the pervasive influence of human activities on aquatic ecosystems.

The issue extends beyond antibiotics to include other pharmaceuticals, such as antidepressants and illicit drugs, seeping into water supplies. Compounds like xylazine, initially an animal tranquilizer, have infiltrated ecosystems and illegal drug markets, exacerbating environmental and public health concerns [1].

An urgent concern within the pharmaceutical realm is the emergence of antibiotic resistance, a growing threat to public health. This phenomenon occurs when bacteria and fungi develop defenses against antibiotics, rendering these drugs ineffective in combating infections [1]. Antibiotic overuse exacerbates this issue, as residues enter water systems via urinary excretion and leach from expired medications deposited in landfills. The presence of pharmaceuticals in water fosters the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant genes, exacerbating the risk of untreatable infections and contributing to increased mortality rates [1]. Dr. Barceló and environmentalists suggest that we need to reduce our doses of antibiotics to mitigate this escalating problem [1].

Dr. Barceló’s Contributions

Although Dr. Damià Barceló conducted his research and studies primarily in Barcelona, Spain, his work extends far beyond national borders through extensive international collaborations. With a specialized background in analytical chemistry, his research focuses on the detection and remediation of organic pollutants, including contaminants and waste substances [1]. Currently serving as the Scientific Director at the Catalan Water Institute in Spain, Dr. Barceló leads research efforts dedicated to understanding the water cycle, hydraulic resource impacts, water quality and treatment, and innovative evaluation technologies [1].

Contrary to the perception that heavy chemical usage is inherently detrimental, Dr. Barceló highlights the pivotal role of chemists in safeguarding the environment by mitigating the presence of harmful chemicals. Leveraging his expertise in chemistry, Dr. Barceló actively contributes to global efforts aimed at improving environmental health and sustainability.

Learn More

If you’d like to hear more about Dr. Damià Barceló’s journey and how our actions impact our water, visit us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and many other streaming services to listen to our ChemTalk Podcast with Dr. Damià Barceló, Professor of Chemistry and Scientific Director at the Catalan Institute for Water Research in Spain. 

Find the ChemTalk podcast here.

Works Cited

[1] Barceló, Damià. Personal interview. Conducted by Olivia Lambertson, Yeongseo Son and Nick Molitor. 20 June 2023.

[2] Celino-Brady, Fritzie T., Darren T. Lerner, and Andre P. Seale. “Experimental Approaches for Characterizing the Endocrine-Disrupting Effects of Environmental Chemicals in Fish.” Frontiers, December 30, 2020.