LONDON – Harmful levels of cocaine and MDMA — more commonly known as ecstasy — have been found in the river that runs through the Glastonbury Festival site and scientists are pinning the blame on festivalgoers urinating in public.
Researchers from Bangor University in Wales tested Whitelake River for illicit drugs in the weeks before, during and after the greenfield festival’s latest iteration, in 2019.
Their analysis, published this month, found traces of cocaine and MDMA present at all sample sites, with the amount of MDMA 104 times greater downstream than upstream the week after the festival. Cocaine levels were 40 times higher downstream.
Scientists warned that the concentration of MDMA found in the river reached “environmentally damaging levels” that were harmful to aquatic life. The levels of cocaine detected were high enough to disrupt the lifecycle of the European eel, an endangered species, scientists said.
Analysis of a neighboring Redlake River found no significant changes in drug levels, confirming that the contamination was “likely dependent” on the festival taking place. More than 200,000 people attended Glastonbury in 2019. (The festival hasn’t taken place for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
“Illicit drug contamination from public urination happens at every music festival,” says Dan Aberg, part of the Bangor University team that did the study. “Unfortunately, Glastonbury Festival’s close proximity to a river results in any drugs released by festival attendees having little time to degrade in the soil before entering the fragile freshwater ecosystem.”
A spokesperson for Glastonbury, responding to the study, says protecting local streams and wildlife is of “paramount importance” to organizers and that they have worked hard in recent years to discourage festivalgoers from urinating on the land.
The festival said it operates a “thorough and successful waterways sampling regime” in agreement with the Environment Agency each year and that no concerns were raised after 2019’s event.
“Peeing on the land is something we will continue to strongly discourage at future festivals,” says the spokesperson. “We also do not condone the use of illegal drugs at Glastonbury.”
Christian Dunn, who led the study, says more must be done to raise awareness around the “hidden yet potentially devastating pollutants” that result from drug and pharmaceutical waste.
He urged festivalgoers to use the official toilets provided by organizers and proposed research into environmentally friendly remedies for contamination, such as treatment for wetlands.
Organizers canceled Glastonbury for a second consecutive year in January because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They instead produced a livestream version of the festival entitled Live at Worthy Farm in May featuring performances from Coldplay, Damon Albarn, Idles, Wolf Alice and Radiohead side project The Smile.