Skip to main content

Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Environmental Impacts of Illicit Drug Production and Use

Issues resulting from illicit drug use are well known within the societal environment of human beings. We are all aware of the ways in which illicit drugs impact human behaviors, family dynamics, and mental health; less is known on the ecological and natural environmental impacts of illicit drug use and production. The production of illicit drugs can have a negative impact on water, soil, and air quality. I am interested in the ways in which stimulants and amphetamines like stimulants, impacts our water and ecologically. Water impacts all living species on Earth including our biodiversity and ecosystems. If the water is impacted beyond repair all life suffers. To analyze these impacts scientists have taken water samples and inspected them using mass spectrometry, and chromatography. These tools are often used to analyze chemicals contamination in the environment and illicit drug consumption in communities. They accomplish this by measuring individual chemical components using solvents and gases to separate chemicals by their volatility and mass (Castigliono et al.).

Illicit methamphetamine is often made in clandestine labs in rural areas, where noxious chemical smells are less noticeable. “For each pound of meth, five pounds of toxic waste are left behind” (Newsweek Staff On 8/7/05 at 8:00 PM EDT et al.). These toxic chemicals litter the surrounding area of the labs and can seep into groundwater and find its way into surface water causing ecological transformations in fish and other wildlife populations.  These chemicals may be poured down sinks, toilets, and bathtubs as a means of disposal, getting into waste management water systems. As of 2015 about 500 metric tons of methamphetamine were produced, with the heaviest users being in Asia, Europe, Australia, and the United States (Health Group). While the use of illicit drugs seems harmless to those who are not active users, there can be widespread impacts on these communities as a whole.

Human consumption of these illicit substances is excreted into wastewater systems that then make their way to surface waters, and drinking water, even after going through water treatment procedures, theses illicit substances are still found (Milione et al.). In 2004 the surface water of the Po River in Italy had a daily load residue of 30grams of amphetamines, levels were less in 2006 due to the implementation of better drug filtration systems. In Spain’s drinking water has completely eradicated amphetamine-type substances, with the exception of MDMA, which had an 88% removal rate (Zuccato and Castiglioni). Although these levels are relatively low, keep in, mind that Spain has the most effective removal process (Jiang et al.). Most countries have fewer effective removals and can still have adverse effects on human health and other forms of wildlife. An example of this is the toxification of water purity in Brazil, where watersheds and surface waters have been affected due to cocaine chemical compounds being disposed of. This toxicity has exposed the European Eel, an already critically endangered species, to long-term cocaine exposure causing significant accumulation in the eel’s tissue. Which has “severely impacted the dopamine receptors of European Eels, inhibiting their reproductive processes and reducing the overall reproductive fitness of the species…cocaine polluted waters also induce an increase in the number of apoptotic cells and levels of necrosis” (Burns-Edel). This has implications for Zebra Muscles and Catfish who frequent the same waters and exhibit similar feeding and activity levels. In Arizona, cattle ranchers have reported mysterious cattle deaths in areas that are downstream of methamphetamine labs. Forest Service members have seen groves of trees that are dead dues “toxic waste run-off” of these clandestine labs (United Nations Office). It isn’t just water and animals that are affected by illicit drug production and use, there has been some review of the effects had on bacteria, and algae. Amphetamines create a chemical stimulation in bacteria that changes their respiration and nutrient conversion. These conversions are of primary concern for aquatic systems. Exposure to amphetamines can inhibit growth and photosynthesis in some strains of algae, which many aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates use for food and oxygen production (Rosi-Marshall et al.). With China, India, Germany, Mongolia, Pakistan, and the Czech Republic being the largest producers of precursor chemicals for methamphetamine (Hunt et al.); Cape Town, South Africa, Asia’s region known as the Golden Triangle, and Mexico are all popular production sites for methamphetamine (United Nations Office).These factors make populations of humans, plants, and animals particularly vulnerable to the environmental impacts of illicit methamphetamine pollution.

Further research is needed to discover the long-term environmental impacts of illicit drug use and production effects on our planet’s biodiversity and survival. Unfortunately, much of the environmental destruction caused by the production of illicit drugs will likely never affect those who are responsible for it. Instead, the victims of drug abuse are the poor, disconnected, impoverished people who will be some of the first to pay penalties. Regardless if we are using, producing, manufacturing, distributing, or avoiding illicit drugs we will likely be affected by the consequences. The plants and animals that play no part in our greed for escapism will pay the heaviest costs. Although we all rely on unique ecosystems to live on this planet, every day we make choices that demolish the system we rely so heavily upon. The contaminations of our ecosystem by illicit drug use and production should be concerning for all who wish to maintain life on this planet. Jacques-Yves Cousteau a French conversationalist said, “For most of history man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that in order to survive, he must protect it” (Cousteau). To do this, we must as a species start to use our natural world as a form of escapism, we must connect more deeply to our relationship with our planet. Science can examine and try to fix the ways that we have already damaged the earth, but it is up to us as individuals to stop contributing to the destruction. In this, I think we must first look at illicit drug abuse as a mental health problem, and do what we can to help those in illicit drug production traps find a new means of survival. Lastly we must be more aware of monitoring the production, marketing and trade of illicit drug precursors to ensure they are disposed of  in an environmentally friendly way.

Works Cited

Milione, Stephania, Isabella Mercurio, Gianmarco Troiano, Paola Melai, Veronica Agostinelli, Nicola Nante, and Mauro Bacci. “Drugs and Psychoactive Substances in the Tiber River.” Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 49.6 (2017): 679-86. Print.

Hunt, Dana, PhD, Sarah Kuck, and Linda Truitt, PhD. Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned. Rep. no. 209730. Cambridge: Abt Associates, 2006. Print.

Lai, Foon Yin, Raimondo Bruno, Wayne Hall, Coral Gartner, Christoph Ort, Paul Kirkbride, Jeremy Prichard, Phong K. Thai, Steve Carter, and Jochen F. Mueller. “Profiles of Illicit Drug Use during Annual Key Holiday and Control Periods in Australia: Wastewater Analysis in an Urban, a Semi-rural and a Vacation Area.” Addiction 108.3 (2012): 556-65. Print.

Zuccato, Ettore, and Sara Castiglioni. “Illicit Drugs in the Environment.” Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society 367.1904 (2009): 3965-978. Print.

Jiang, Jheng-Jie, Chon-Lin Lee, Meng-Der Fang, Bo-Wen Tu, and Yu-Jen Liang. “Impacts of Emerging Contaminants on Surrounding Aquatic Environment from a Youth Festival.” Environmental Science & Technology 49.2 (2014): 792-99. Print.

Burns-Edel, Tristan, UC Davis. “Environmental Impacts of Illicit Drug Production.” Global Societies Journal 4 (2016): 1-12. Print.

Rosi-Marshall, E.J., D. Snow, S.L. Bartelt-Hunt, A. Paspalof, and J.L. Tank. “A Review of Ecological Effects and Environmental Fate of Illicit Drugs in Aquatic Ecosystems.” Journal of Hazardous Materials 282 (2015): 18-25. Print.

Lee, Sylvia S., Alexis M. Paspalof, Daniel D. Snow, Erinn K. Richmond, Emma J. Rosi-Marshall, and John J. Kelly. “Occurrence and Potential Biological Effects of Amphetamine on Stream Communities.” Environmental Science & Technology 50.17 (2016): 9727-735. Print.

Newsweek Staff On 8/7/05 at 8:00 PM EDT, Will Chamberlain, and Matthew Feeney. “America’s Most Dangerous Drug.” Newsweek. 01 July 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2020. <>.

Health Group, Delphi Behavioral. “Meth Use Statistics Around the World (2019): Delphi Health Group.” Delphi Behavioral Health Group. 23 Apr. 2020. Web. 12 Nov. 2020. <>.

United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime. “Methamphetamine Continues to Dominate Synthetic Drug Markets.” Global Smart Update 20 (2018): 3-15. Print.

Grates, Kurt. “Gas Chromatography/ Mass Spectrometry.” 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2020. <>.

Cousteau, Jacques-Yves. “Jacques-Yves Cousteau Quotes (Author of The Silent World).” Goodreads. Goodreads. Web. 12 Nov. 2020. <>.




By accessing or using any part of this site, you agree to not download, copy, or otherwise plagiarize its contents in any way.

Salt Lake Community College

4600 South Redwood Road Salt Lake City, UT 84123
Student Services hours: M - F : 7am -7pm
Enrollment Info: 801-957-4073 |