Large music festivals - and the people who attend them - could be responsible for an increased presence of illicit drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine turning up in nearby water supplies, a study has found.   

Scientists in Taiwan were interested in examining the water quality impacts associated with the country's Spring Scream music festival, which attracts roughly 600,000 people annually.  

What the researchers found was an "extraordinary increase in the party drug MDMA (ecstasy)" during the music festival, as well as higher overall concentrations of other notable contaminants, such as ketamine (an animal tranquiliser turned party drug), pseudoephedrine and caffeine.

"This drug [MDMA] was only detected at a very low level before and after the youth festival," the researchers wrote.

Their findings, which support the assumption that music festivals and drug use go hand-in-hand, were published online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.   

The purpose of the study was to better understand how emerging contaminants end up in drinking water supplies and aquatic environments. 

Emerging contaminants (ECs) include recreational drugs, pharmaceuticals, and various personal care products, and are problematic because conventional wastewater treatment plants aren't designed to remove them, the researchers say.  

Recent studies suggest only 50 percent of these contaminants are successfully removed. The compounds that slip through can end up in our drinking water, and inside fish and other aquatic organisms, albeit in very, very small doses (usually parts per billion or parts per trillion). 

"The widespread occurrence of these contaminants in freshwater is potentially a major problem with consequences that are yet to be fully understood," the team wrote

To understand the impact of the music festival, researchers measured contaminant levels from 28 freshwater and two wastewater sampling sites in Hengchun, a popular tourist region on the southernmost tip of Taiwan (where the festival is held).

They compared samples taken during the dry season (March), the wet season (August), the low season (October), and the period when the music festival was held (April).

As expected, concentrations were high when tourists were populating the region, and they were lowest following the wet season (and after the dispersal of tourists) due to "significant dilution from precipitation". 

What was unusual was the spike in the concentration of ecstasy turning up during the festival, and the drop immediately afterwards.

The researchers say their findings provide important data for pollution control and environmental management, and also serve to highlight that one-off events, such as concerts, or sporting events, can impact water quality.  

Previous studies have also shown a correlation between drugs turning up in wastewater and specific events. 

For instance, as Rachel Feltman points out for the Washington Post, water quality tests near universities during exams have found spikes in amphetamine (taken by many students to improve their studying). Another study found that levels of cocaine and ecstasy were higher in the London area on weekends. 

Source: Washington Post