“Impacts of Emerging Contaminants on Surrounding Aquatic Environment from a Youth Festival”

JJ Jiang et al. 2015. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 792–799.
The youth festival as we refer to Spring Scream, a large-scale pop music festival, is notorious for the problems of drug abuse and addiction. The origin, temporal magnitudes, potential risks and mass inputs of emerging contaminants (ECs) were investigated. Thirty targeted ECs were analyzed by solid-phase extraction and liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry (SPE-LC-MS/MS). Sampling strategy was designed to characterize EC behavior in different stages (before and after the youth festival), based on multivariate data analysis to explore the contributions of contaminants from normal condition to the youth festival. Wastewater influents and effluents were collected during the youth festival (approximately 600 000 pop music fans and youth participated). Surrounding river waters are also sampled to illustrate the touristic impacts during peak season and off-season. Seasonal variations were observed, with the highest concentrations in April (Spring Scream) and the lowest in October (off-season). Acetaminophen, diclofenac, codeine, ampicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin-H2O, and gemfibrozil have significant pollution risk quotients (RQs > 1), indicating ecotoxicological concerns. Principal component analysis (PCA) and weekly patterns provide a perspective in assessing the touristic impacts and address the dramatic changes in visitor population and drug consumption. The highest mass loads discharged into the aquatic ecosystem corresponded to illicit drugs/controlled substances such as ketamine and MDMA, indicating the high consumption of ecstasy during Spring Scream.

It isn’t every day that water quality researchers get to spend a weekend at a music festival for work purposes.  Nor is it every day that a cup of the waste water effluent near that festival contains enough MDMA and ketamine to provide a clinically-active dose of ecstasy.  But when researchers from Kaohsiung University in southern Taiwan visited the “Spring Scream” music festival, which brings 600,000 visitors every April to nearby Kenting, they found just this.  Along the way, they illustrated the fundamental importance of timescale for understanding the Anthropocene.

One of the hardest things for humans to wrap their heads around is the immensity of geological time.  It is difficult enough for us to fathom the world our great grandparents lived in, even harder to contemplate the world beyond our own ephemeral individual lives, and harder yet to start imagining time before the advent of our own civilizations.  But deep time—the hundreds of millions of years that existed long before the evolution of multicellular life, let alone animals, let alone mammals like us—is something our human brains wrap around as easily as a flea circumnavigates the Superdome.

I think this is what makes the importance of the Anthropocene so difficult for some people to appreciate.  It is not the particular present concentration of CO2 that is the concern.  Nor is it the absolute global temperature.  These have occurred before.  What is unprecedented is the rate of change.  And to fully appreciate the rate of change, one needs to fully, deeply understand deep time and the scale upon which the Earth has generally seen change.

If there is one defining feature of the Anthropocene, it is perhaps the suddenness of change.  Rapid change in extinction rates, rapid changes in land use, rapid changes in climate and the composition of our atmosphere.  One look at a plot of CO2 concentration over the past 800,000 years is enough to drive home this point.  Or for a more playful look, I recommend XKCD’s take on the issue of time.

Scientists therefore must carefully consider what sort of timescale on which they should study the Anthropocene.  Are yearly measurements enough?  Or monthly?  Daily?

Jiang et al. did all three.  They measured the concentration of “emerging contaminants”—human-derived chemicals found in the natural environment that include prescription drugs, personal care products, and illicit substances—from several rivers, estuaries, and beaches in southern Taiwan.  (For an overview of the concerns raised by these chemicals see this Water Quality Association fact sheet.) Scientists often measure the concentrations of emerging contaminants on a seasonal or monthly basis.  But the concentrations of these compounds are closely tied with human activity, which varies as quickly as a large group of humans can drive up to a nice spot on a riverbank and start consuming their favorite mind-altering chemicals (including, of course, their favorite latte).

What is perhaps most interesting is the researchers measured wastewater on a daily basis immediately prior to, during, and after the music festival.  Wastewater treatment plants are generally not designed to remove emerging contaminants, so unsurprisingly, they found concentrations of caffeine in concentrations of 10 – 14 mg per litre (one cup of coffee contains 95 mg).  More concerningly, they found concentrations of erythromycin (a highly active antibiotic), codeine, gemfibrozil (a blood lipid management drug), and acetaminophen at concentrations high enough to cause significant risk to aquatic organisms.   It is also worth noting that risk to aquatic organisms is based on the concentrations of a single chemical at a time—the impacts of cocktails of substances are complex, and not well-understood.

Finally, perhaps unsurprisingly, they found concentrations of illicit substances (including MDMA, ketamine, and pseudoephedrine) in high enough quantities to individually cause clinically active effects in 500 mL (about 2 baking cups) of water.  And just like in aquatic organisms, the impact of these together on a human is not well understood.

When the researchers examined the samples they took on a monthly basis, they did see an increase in emerging contaminant concentration, but not to near the extent they did when they measured on a daily basis.  If conservation and environment officials only measured impacts on a monthly basis, these short-term but potentially incredibly significant events easily might be missed.  In this case, the rapid spikes in contaminant load that are associated with human activity are easily missed when the timescale at which we take measurements is mismatched with the timescale of significant changes in the environment.

So how is Jiang et al.’s research relevant to the Anthropocene? To see, we must consider how we understand the Anthropocene–by understanding that human-caused changes are incredibly quick relative to deep time.  And by understanding, perhaps even more importantly, that we (like many other organisms) are fragile beings whose physiology similarly responds on incredibly rapid timescales.  For example, the length of time it takes for extreme heat to kill a human can be measured in a matter of hours, and measuring only changes in mean temperatures over long scales does not give us the precision we need to understand the impacts that anthropogenic warming will have on us.  In fact, we are experiencing greater numbers of extreme events in the Anthropocene that happen on incredibly short time-scales.  The interaction between mean conditions and number of extreme events is complex, but at least in climate, it appears that greater mean temperatures lead to greater numbers of heat waves.  While heat waves are short in timescale, even on human timescales, they lead to large numbers of human deaths, with a recent estimate that up to 69% of deaths from a heat wave were directly attributable to anthropogenic climate change.

So what timescale do we measure the Anthropocene on?  The answer is likely “all of them”.

B. Petrie, R. Barden and B.  Kasprzyk-Hordern. 2015. “A review on emerging contaminants in wastewaters and the environment: Current knowledge, understudied areas and recommendations for future monitoring.” Water Research Vol. 72, pp. 3-27. Provides a broader context for understanding the kinds of contaminants studied by Jiang et al.

Loving the Anthr*pocene

My previous post was a provocation on refusal.  How, I asked, might the Anthr*pocene concept naturalize and even magnify the violent, dispossessionary forces it purports to describe?  And how might refusing this concept relate to Continue reading

“Relative impacts of mitigation, temperature, and precipitation on 21st-century megadrought risk in the American Southwest”

Ault, T.R. et al. 2016. Science Advances, vol. 2, e1600873
Megadroughts are comparable in severity to the worst droughts of the 20th century but are of much longer duration. A megadrought in the American Southwest would impose unprecedented stress on Continue reading

The Iconoclastic Anthropocene: On How We Choose to Destroy Art

Ivo Bazzechi Cimabue FloodOn November 4, 1966, the Arno overflowed its banks into the streets of Florence. A number of prominent foreign art historians, including Frederick Hartt and John Shearman, arrived soon thereafter to assist their Italian colleagues, working generally under the oversight of the Uffizi’s conservation director Umberto Baldini, in developing a response to a cultural emergency: the Italian Renaissance was underwater. Their collective expertise facilitated the arduous work of restoring what could be salvaged from the flood, which had Continue reading

The Roles for Indigenous Peoples in Anthropocene Dialogues: Some Critical Notes and a Question

We welcome Kyle Powys Whyte, of Michigan State University, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab.

I bet there have probably been more than a hundred events organized for the purpose of fostering dialogue of all kinds on what meanings and futures are presupposed by the “anthropocene.” I have been to some of them. I even just Continue reading

“Valuation in the Anthropocene: Exploring options for alternative operations of the Glen Canyon Dam”

Jones, B.A. et al. 2016. Water Resources and Economics vol. 14, pp. 3-13
Amidst debates about what conservation and preservation mean for large coupled human and natural systems, survey-based non-market valuation approaches for eliciting non-use values also may confront the need for Continue reading

New Year’s Greetings for 2017




In this season of the solstice, the natural world reminds us that at the darkest moment light can return. But our own nature is such that brighter days in the human sense are not inevitable–they must be strived for and accomplished.  Here’s to the joy of imagining, and working toward, a truly habitable future.

Article published on Anthropocene Biosphere Project

I’m delighted to announce that Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) is publishing “The Anthropocene Biosphere: Supporting ‘Open Interdisciplinarity’ through Blogging,” an article about the Anthropocene Biosphere Project that appeared on the blog earlier this year. Continue reading

“Climate, Environment and Early Human Innovation: Stable Isotope and Faunal Proxy Evidence from Archaeological Sites (98-59ka) in the Southern Cape, South Africa”


Roberts, P., C. S. Henshilwood, K. L. van Niekerk, P. Keene, A. Gledhill, J. Reynard, S. Badenhorst and J. Lee-Thorp. 2016 PLoS One 11(7):e0157408.


The Middle Stone Age (MSA) of southern Africa, and in particular its Still Bay and Howiesons Poort lithic traditions, represents a period of dramatic subsistence, cultural, and technological innovation by Continue reading

“How humans drive speciation as well as extinction”

Bull, J.W. and Maron, M. 2016. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283: 20160600.
A central topic for conservation science is evaluating how human activities influence global species diversity. Humanity exacerbates extinction rates. But by what mechanisms does humanity drive the emergence of new species? Continue reading

CRISPR as Niche Construction: an Aristotelian View

CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) is part of a system, noticed in certain bacteria, by which a cell can make changes in strands of DNA. This mechanism appears to be a proto-immune system: it enables a bacterium to recognize Continue reading

Cities as Human Niches: Against the ‘Natural City’

We welcome to the blog Nir Barak, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The city is in some sense our niche; we belong there, and no one can achieve full humanity without it. (Holmes Rolston III[1])

In this post, I want to turn our gaze to cities as the paradigmatic embodiment of niche construction in the Anthropocene. I wish to outline Continue reading

Stewarding the planet? The Anthropocene and nondualist ontologies

We welcome to the blog Luigi Pellizzoni, of the University of Trieste, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The ontological claims embroiled in the notion of the Anthropocene have so far attracted less attention than other issues. However, as I will try to show, it is important to engage in a thorough reflection on them—which I hope to kick start with the following contribution. Continue reading

Interdisciplinarity as conversation

This blog is premised on the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the Anthropocene—indeed, to the general question of human beings’ relationship with their environment. And it aspires to embody a certain conception of interdisciplinarity—one which uses conversation as a model for the interaction among people from diverse intellectual backgrounds. Continue reading

Governance in the Anthropocene: The Role of the Arts

We welcome to the blog Marit Hammond, of Keele University, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The sea around the Brindisi industrial zone is contaminated with toxins and carcinogens, threatening the sea urchin and mussel populations that are farmed in this area. © Environmental Resistance, http://environmentalresistance.org/art/no-al-carbone/no-al-carbone-view-project/

The sea around the Brindisi industrial zone is contaminated with toxins and carcinogens, threatening the sea urchin and mussel populations that are farmed in this area. © Cerano Power station outflow, from the No Al Carbone series, Environmental Resistance, 2015.

Continue reading