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Illicit drugs – environmental occurrence, persistence and ecotoxicity


Illicit drugs are drugs whose production and non-medical use is prohibited by international law and include groups of opiates, ecstasy, cocaine, cannabis and amphetamines. Globally, these drugs have been used by 153 to 300 million people aged between 15 and 64 at least once in the previous year.

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug type, consumed by 120 to 224 million people worldwide in 2013. In Australia the illicit drugs market is steadily dominated by cannabis followed by ATS in terms of arrests, seizures and use. Nationally, more than 19.6 tonnes of illicit drugs, 757 clandestine laboratories and 86,918 seizures were recorded in 2012-13.

Illicit drugs are the latest group of emerging pollutants. Determination of their concentration in the environment is used to evaluate potential ecotoxicological impacts from chronic low level exposure. Illicit drugs enter the wastewater system as unchanged drugs, and/or their active metabolites by human excretion after illegal consumption, or by accidental or deliberate disposal from clandestine drug laboratories.

The concentration of illicit drugs and their metabolites in the environment, and their potential impact on the ecosystem, has been reported mainly by European countries, USA, and Canada. There is a lack of information regarding the Australian environment. This research project will include a critical study on the distribution pattern and potential harmful impact on the environment in Australia. Key objectives of this project are as follows:

  •  Find the occurrence and distribution pattern of illicit drugs and their metabolites in Australian soil and water
  •  Study their degradation pattern in soil and water
  •  Investigate the eco-toxicity of illicit drugs and their metabolites on aquatic and soil organisms.


Pandian completed his bachelor degree in Agricultural Sciences at Annamalai University (India) and masters degree in Agricultural Entomolgy at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (India). He also holds Autralian trade qualifications in Horticulture (Certificate III, IV and Diploma) and Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. In India, Pandian worked for E.I.D Parry (India) Ltd as an assistant research and marketing officer (2002-2005). In Australia, he has worked as a horticultural trainer at the Australian College of Horticulture and Agriculture (ACHA) between 2006 – 09, and as a horticultural course co-ordinator for the Australian Adelaide International College (AAIC) between 2010-12.


Govindarasu, P, Megharaj, M, Pal, R, Naidu, R & Pigou, P 2013, ‘Occurrence of illicit drugs in Adelaide environment’, in 5th International Contaminated Site Remediation Conference: Program and proceedings, CleanUp 2013, Melbourne, Australia, 15-18 September, pp. 182-183.