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Cocaine and MDMA in Glastonbury Festival river may pose threat to rare eels

Flooding at Glastonbury 2005, with tents underwater
Flooding at Glastonbury. Inset: European eel (Image credit: Jon Super/DEA/A.Calegari/Getty Images)

Levels of illegal drugs found running through the Whitelake River in Somerset are so high they could harm wildlife, scientists have warned. The river begins at the confluence of the two small streams on Worthy Farm, which is the site of the annual Glastonbury Festival

Researchers examined water both upstream and downstream of the festival site after the last event in 2019, and found the levels of illegal substances in the water were much higher downstream.

"We tested for popular illicit drugs such as cocaine and MDMA in the river upstream and downstream of the festival site as well as in the neighbouring Redlake River," the report says. "Both rivers were sampled the weeks before, during and after the festival. 

"Cocaine, benzoylecgonine and MDMA were found at all sample sites; concentrations, and mass loads (mass carried by the river per unit of time) were significantly higher in the Whitelake site, downstream of the festival. MDMA mass loads were 104 times greater downstream in comparison to upstream sites. Cocaine and benzoylecgonine mass loads were also 40 times higher downstream of the festival."

The report was authored by Dan Aberg, a Masters student in the School of Natural Sciences at Bangor University, who worked with Dr Daniel Chaplin from the Centre for Environmental Biotechnology to compile the data.

“Illicit drug contamination from public urination happens at every music festival," says Aberg. "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."

The amount of MDMA found in the water was deemed harmful to aquatic life, while a study in 2018 (opens in new tab) found that traces of cocaine in river water caused eels to suffer muscle wastage, impaired gills and hormonal changes. The Whitelake River is home to the European eel, a protected species.    

Ahead of the 2019 festival, Glastonbury organisers launched a 'Don’t Pee On The Land' campaign to raise awareness of the threat to the environment caused by public urination on the site.

“We have a thorough and successful waterways sampling regime in place during each festival, as agreed with the Environment Agency," say the organisers. "There were no concerns raised by the Environment Agency following Glastonbury 2019."

Fraser Lewry
Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 36 years in music industry, online for 23. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.