Dangerous levels of cocaine and MDMA are found in Glastonbury river

Glastonbury festival-goers taking ecstasy and cocaine are poisoning wildlife because illegal drugs from public urination are leaking into a river on site, scientists warn

  • Scientists sampled waters at a river near to the Glastonbury Festival site in 2019 
  • It’s thought the ecstasy and cocaine enter nearby rivers through public urination
  • In June 2022, Glastonbury Festival is set to get its first attendees in three years

Drug takers at Glastonbury Festival are responsible for poisoning local wildlife, a new study shows.

Traces of illegal drugs ecstasy (MDMA) and cocaine in urine of drug-taking festival goers has leaked into a river on site, according to the authors at Bangor University.    

The problem stems from drug takers relieving themselves against a tree or bush or on the grass at the site, rather than using the festival toilets.  

For the study, samples were taken from the Whitelake River both upstream and downstream of the festival site before, during and after the last Glastonbury Festival in 2019. 

They found ecstasy concentrations quadrupled the week after the festival, but traces of the drug are present in the river all the year round, suggesting that it has built up in soil around the site.

Cocaine concentrations, meanwhile, rose to levels known to affect the lifecycle of the rare European eel (Anguilla anguilla), a protected species.   

Researchers discovered that during the festival, levels of MDMA and cocaine in the water were so high it could be harming wildlife further downstream, including rare populations of eels. The last Glastonbury Festival was held in 2019 – but it’s set to return in 2022

Dan Aberg, a masters student in the School of Natural Sciences, Bangor University, worked with Dr Daniel Chaplin from the Centre for Environmental Biotechnology (CEB) to gather the samples. 

‘Illicit drug contamination from public urination happens at every music festival,’ said Aberg. 

‘The level of release is unknown, but festivals undoubtedly are an annual source of illicit drug release.’

Samples were taken from the Whitelake River, which cuts through the Glastonbury Festival site


Glastonbury Festival itself has already warned visitors to refrain from urinating on the ground at the site prior to its past events. 

‘Peeing on the ground at Glastonbury causes toxic pollution of the water table,’ it says on the official festival website. 

‘The ground water runs into the central Whitelake River and down the valley for miles around. Wildlife and fish are affected if 135,000 revellers pee everywhere.

‘The Environment Agency tests the water regularly, and has the power to close down the site if too many people have urinated and polluted the site.

‘There are thousands of toilets on site, and we urge you to use them. Environmental health students check the toilets twice a day and cleaners and other staff are on hand, 24/7, to help keep them functional.’ 

‘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.’ 

Glastonbury Festival had already advised its visitors against urinating on the ground in 2019, in the form of messages dotted around the site – but the new study suggests these were largely ignored. 

A spokesman for Glastonbury Festival said: ‘Protecting our local streams and wildlife is of paramount importance to us at Glastonbury Festival and we have a thorough and successful waterways sampling regime in place during each Festival, as agreed with the Environment Agency. 

‘There were no concerns raised by the Environment Agency following Glastonbury 2019.’

‘We are aware that the biggest threat to our waterways – and the wildlife for which they provide a habitat – comes from festivalgoers urinating on the land.

‘This is something we have worked hard to reduce in recent years through a number of campaigns, with measurable success. 

‘Peeing on the land is something we will continue to strongly discourage at future festivals. We also do not condone the use of illegal drugs at Glastonbury.’   

In 2020, the festival was cancelled due to coronavirus, and this year it was held as an online-only live-streamed event. 

However, revellers are set to be allowed back on the site for Glastonbury Festival 2022, set to be held from June 22 to 26.

Both the study authors and the festival organisers are now urging people to use the proper toilets.  

The researchers also suggest environmentally friendly methods of treating human waste, such as constructed treatment wetlands (CTWs).

CTWs are artificially created wetlands specifically designed for the treatment of wastewaters.  

Information on the harmful effects of public urination should continue to be provided to festival attendees to reduce the contamination of natural resources, the team add.

‘Our main concern is the environmental impact,’ said study author Dr Christian Dunn at Bangor University.

‘This study identifies that drugs are being released at levels high enough to disrupt the lifecycle of the European eel, potentially derailing conservation efforts to protect this endangered species.

‘Education is essential for environmental issues, just as people have been made aware of the problems of plastic pollution.

‘Glastonbury have made great efforts to become plastic-free, [but] we also need to raise awareness around drug and pharmaceutical waste – it is a hidden, worryingly-understudied yet potentially devastating pollutant.’    


Fish in British waterways contain cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine, pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs, a 2019 study revealed. 

Kings College scientists working with the University of Suffolk collected water samples at 15 sites at five rivers around Suffolk.  

The authors said ‘surprisingly’ they found cocaine in every single sample – while the party drug ketamine and other pharmaceuticals were also found in freshwater shrimp.

Dr Leon Barron from King’s College London said: ‘Such regular occurrence of illicit drugs in wildlife was surprising. 

‘We might expect to see these in urban areas such as London, but not in smaller and more rural catchments.

‘The presence of pesticides which have long been banned in the UK also poses a particular challenge as the sources of these remain unclear.’

In all 56, different substances were detected – and the drug of abuse, cocaine, was the most commonly found along with lidocaine.

Lidocaine has legal uses as a local anaesthetic in dentistry, but is also often used illicitly to ‘cut’ cocaine, as it produces numbness in the gums like cocaine, tricking users into thinking they are getting cocaine which has a similar effect.

Lead author, Dr Thomas Miller from King’s College London said: ‘Although concentrations were low, we were able to identify compounds that might be of concern to the environment and crucially, which might pose a risk to wildlife.’   

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