So Many Brits Use Cocaine That It’s Showing Up in the Water

Despite water purification treatments, traces of the drug can still be found.

(Photo: Laurent Hamels/Getty Images)

May 13, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

We’re used to news stories about our water being polluted by garbage and industrial waste. But instead of phoning Erin Brockovich about toxins coming out of the tap, environmental activists in the U.K. might need to call a rehab center. Thanks to sky-high rates of cocaine use, Great Britain’s water supply is now contaminated with the drug.

Britain’s Drinking Water Inspectorate, which regulates tap water, found traces of benzoylecgonine, the chemical name for metabolized coke, in four aquatic tests, reported The Sunday Times.

“We have the near highest level of cocaine use in western Europe,” Steve Rolles of Transform, a U.K.-based drug policy think tank, told the Times. “It [cocaine] has also been getting cheaper and cheaper at the same time as its use has been going up,” he said.

Even though the falling price of the drug makes it more affordable, folks aren’t just dropping it in the Thames for kicks. The Times reports that every year about 700,000 Brits either snort or smoke cocaine—and eventually they go to the bathroom. The metabolized form of cocaine is excreted through urine.

The U.K. sends wastewater through purification facilities, but the drug still ends up being present in the water supply. That’s because those plants aren’t equipped to filter out narcotic residue in urine. Water regulators also found plenty of ibuprofen flowing through pipes in the British Isles. Here in the U.S., numerous studies have found that fish and other marine life are being harmed by antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals floating in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

So does all this mean you’re going to get a contact high if you head to England and drink from a water fountain? It’s not likely. U.K. officials say that the amount of coke in the water supply is still too low to be a danger to the public.