LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Two major Las Vegas events brought big numbers, big money, and a significant bump in prescription and illicit drugs to the water flowing into Lake Mead, local research found.
In May, NEWS10’s sister station in Vegas reported on researchers and students at the College of Southern Nevada’s School of Sciences and Mathematics taking part in a global study to investigate the effects of pharmaceuticals on the world’s waterways. As part of the project, the team took samples from different areas of the Las Vegas Wash, a 12-mile-long channel that moves treated wastewater out of the Las Vegas Valley and into Lake Mead.
During their study, researchers noted an increase in some medications and drugs in the wash during the NFL Draft, which was held in late April, and the Electric Daisy Carnival, a three-day electronic music festival that took place in May. The draft brought an estimated quarter-million tourists to the region, while the Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) attracted about 160,000 people each night.
“Two distinctly different groups of people showed up,” said Dr. Doug Sims, the dean of Nevada’s School of Sciences & Mathematics. He leads the grant-funded research, with a mission to find out not only what southern Nevadans are leaving behind, but also what tourists are bringing to the region.
Sims’ research detected 28 compounds in the wash, including antidepressants, opioids, and medications to treat acid reflux, allergies, coughs, diabetes, high blood pressure, muscle spasms, nerve pain, and shingles. “It’s important to look at what’s going into the natural environment because what we do as people is going to affect the wider environment or the food web,” he said.
Data from before and after the draft, and before and after the EDC, show two specific drug signatures, he said. During the NFL Draft, Sims noted an influx of anti-depressants and medications to mitigate high blood pressure and cholesterol. The uptick in those chemical compounds is statistically significant compared to the other weekly-compiled data, Sims said.
During the EDC and the days after, wastewater in Las Vegas contained a notable spike in MDMA, also known as ecstasy, or molly. The amount of MDMA flowing through the Las Vegas Wash on the Monday after EDC was 300 times its level recorded before the festival began, Sims’ research found.
The levels are not yet harmful to humans, but other organisms do not have the privilege of a high-tech treatment facility, Sims noted. “Going from 10 parts per trillion MDMA on a normal day to 2,100 parts per trillion on a day during or shortly after that event is clearly a signature of that event itself,” he said.
Readings decreased after the spike, Sims said. The wash also saw an uptick in ketamine and pain medication that same weekend. “They get up the next morning, take another medication to deaden the pain that they have from partying all night long,” Sims theorized.
The medications and drugs going into Lake Mead have no effect on the region’s drinking water, which also comes from the reservoir. “All drinking water treated and delivered by the Southern Nevada Water Authority meets or surpasses Safe Drinking Water Act and health-based standards,” a spokesperson said in May. “Over the past 20 years, SNWA has also developed and implemented cutting edge methods to monitor our water supply for pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, and relevant metabolites.”
Sims hopes his research shows how these compounds affect smaller organisms and creatures that bigger animals, like humans, rely on. “It’s very low for you and I, but for a fish, that’s a lot of potentially hazardous material,” Sims said.
Over time, as Las Vegas’ groundwater shrinks and the volume of wastewater increases, those trace levels will only multiply. Their effects on plants, small organisms, and animals living in the wash and in the lake are unknown.