March 19, 2012
Recent discoveries indicate that the effects of drugs like birth control may indeed be spinning out of control. Americans are using more drugs than ever, and the amount of pharmaceuticals in the water supply has greatly increased in the past decades. The baby boomer generation is aging, which causes the intake of more drugs. People have been disposing of unwanted medications by flushing them down toilets without thinking of where that pipe leads – back into the water. In the past, the culprits have even included hospitals and nursing homes, as these facilities are required by federal law to dispose of any leftover medicine to avoid misuse. However, one of the main ways pharmaceuticals are entering our water supply is not through direct dumping, but rather human excretion. This is the case for birth control.
Birth control is not entirely absorbed by our bodies and currently, water treatment plants do not adequately remove these compounds. Therefore, some quantities of birth control come out in our urine and can contaminate water in a flush. 17α-ethinylestradiol, a synthetic estrogen found in birth control, has been found to cause the feminization of male fish, with some found containing both male and female parts or even producing eggs. The estrogen is causing fish species to become infertile, with the reproductive organs becoming so deformed the fish can no longer reproduce. In a study conducted at the Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, two months after adult trout were continually exposed to the synthetic estrogen, they were half as fertile as the unexposed fish.
The contaminated water quality affects humans as well as organisms living in the water. Although it is believed that low concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water will have little to no impact on human health, there is little information known on their long-term effects. However, there is evidence that these pharmaceuticals become concentrated in the fish that humans eat. A study by the University of Pittsburg showed that when the estrogen levels in catfish were exposed to breast cancer cells, the cells grew twice as fast. The south branch of the Potomac runs through Hardy County, Virginia, where the rate of cancer has risen because of the polluted river. A recent study in the county found that the rate of liver, gallbladder, ovary, and uterine cancer is higher than the state average. As with most environmental contaminants, the effects of pharmaceuticals on humans are not certain. However, we can be sure that people will be greatly affected by the decrease in fish populations and lingering risk that prolonged exposure to these contaminants could be detrimental to human health.
Although many municipal filtration systems cannot filter out these emerging contaminants, there are several ways to decrease their consequences. According to “Scientific American,” personal water filters that use reverse osmosis and carbon filters may help. In terms of eliminating the compounds through treatment, scientists are also looking into new technologies that will allow treatment plants to use membranes to pull out contaminants. Also, because lined landfills are more capable of handling contaminants, one of the best ways to reduce the impact of pharmaceuticals in water is not to flush them in the first place, but rather dispose of them in the trash. However, the issue with birth control is that it is released into the environment through human excretion, something we cannot prevent we want to continue to use these drugs. We need to keep researching and monitoring the effects of pharmaceuticals like birth control to try to find ways to filter out these contaminants in treatment plants. While there is no definite solution, we can do our best to reduce develop new technologies, keep a close eye on the effects, and limit the amount of pharmaceuticals that end up in the water that we share with millions of species.
Juliana Duran and Judy Fong are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.
Beginning in earnest with the Clean Water Act of 1972, water quality and pollutant regulation have been of relatively prominent concern in the realm of environmental issues. Some major sources of water pollution — such as runoff from urban, industrial, and agricultural areas, and large oil spills— are extremely visible and have garnered much attention. As of late, however, scientists are realizing that that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations are inadequate, as they do not require water testing for at least one type of harmful contaminants: pharmaceuticals. According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, pharmaceuticals can be found in the drinking water of approximately 41 million Americans. Pharmaceutical contaminants come from both human and animal sources: most medications people ingest are broken down in the body, but the subsequent waste products and excess chemicals that the body does not metabolize are passed through urine. Hormones and antibiotics seem to be the most prevalent and most concerning at the moment, but as with other emerging contaminants, hardly anything is known about the long-term health and ecological impacts of prolonged exposure to these drugs. While some scientists say that trace levels of pharmaceuticals are too small to have any impact on the environment, there are already several examples of these toxins affecting organisms. Before any judgment is made on the severity of the issue, there needs to be more research more regulations on pharmaceutical dumping and water testing.
Pharmaceuticals were first discovered in drinking water in Europe about 10 years ago, when scientists detected levels of clofibric acid in groundwater near a German water treatment plant. Soon after this suspicious detection of this cholesterol-lowering drug in groundwater, scientists across Europe tested groundwater near drinking sources and wastewater treatment facilities, finding chemotherapy drugs, hormones, antibiotics, analgesics, and various other prescription drugs. Steroids and other hormones given to livestock are also a huge concern, as left-over chemicals are eliminated from animals in the same manner as humans: in fact, a recent study conducted by the U.S. Geologic Survey found that “steroids, nonprescription drugs, and insect repellent were the chemical groups most frequently detected” in water supplies tested. Unfortunately, sewage treatment plants are not equipped to remove these chemicals, as they are not classified as dangerous contaminants by the EPA’s water quality regulations.
However, their effects are clearly a cause for concern. One study found that a group of male fish downstream from a feedlot had significantly lower levels of testosterone and were smaller than normal because of their exposure to steroids from the feedlot’s runoff. In another instance, scientists determined that small amounts of antidepressants that made their way into water caused some kinds of freshwater mussels to prematurely release their larvae—not necessarily detrimental to the mussels themselves, but greatly lowering the survival chances of future generations. But harm to aquatic organisms are not the only potential problem. If antibiotics are released into water sources, even in small doses, there is a possibility that pathogens in the water will be able to develop drug-resistant strains. Furthermore, there is the threat that pharmaceutical-contaminated water is being pumped into aquifers as part of artificial groundwater recharge, where chemicals can persist for years. And the problem is worldwide: in countries like India with less wastewater treatment infrastructure, huge amounts of pharmaceuticals are being dumped directly into rivers by chemical production plants.
While the concentration levels of pharmaceuticals are arguably low, the concrete examples of the direct negative impacts that pharmaceutical concentrations as low as one part per billion can have is a call to update regulations and drug disposal practices. As an emerging contaminant with a wide variety of sources, it’s difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for pharmaceutical reduction. A solution will have to start with regulations on wastewater treatment, especially in areas near animal feedlots and large cities, as well as education for the public about reducing pharmaceutical contamination at the source through proper disposal and use of medicine. There has been some evidence that the chlorine used to treat drinking water can react with pharmaceuticals to actually make them more toxic. Several methods of water treatment are being tested for pharmaceutical removal, including reverse osmosis and ozone and UV treatments. Some states are already taking matters into their own hands by passing legislature that requires the proper disposal of pharmaceuticals from sources like hospitals.
Though there may not be a convenient solution and though it will require advanced technology to test and identify sources and treatments, increasing our knowledge of pharmaceuticals as contaminants will be vital in protecting both ourselves and the environment from long-term and irreversible consequences. In order to characterize and solve the problem, we must first be able to understand the environmental risk pharmaceuticals pose.
Britanny Cheng and Kali Staniec are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
October 31, 2011
New research categorizes pharmaceuticals as emerging contaminants because of the harmful effects being seen in marine ecosystems. Emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, industrial byproducts, and pesticides are entering marine ecosystems and affecting them in a detrimental way. As defined by the EPA, an emerging contaminant is “a chemical or material characterized by a perceived, potential, or real threat to human health or the environment or by a lack of published health standards.. Though their exact effects on marine ecosystems are not known because of minimal monitoring and lack of extensive research, some studies have shown to be toxic to aquatic life. These contaminants generally from agriculture, industry, and households can interfere with hormone systems affecting reproduction and growth in marine organisms. We should be concerned about the presence of these emerging contaminants because it is unknown where exactly they come from, what their full effects are, or the result of their interactions.
The Southern California Coastal Water Research Projecthas done a lot of research including studies of contaminants in wastewater. For example, these contaminants are known disrupters to the endocrine system interfering with reproductive hormones such as estrogen and testosterone in male flatfish. The presence of estrogen in these waters can be due to the cycling of birth control and through urination, can enter water, and thus affect the reproductive systems of aquatic organisms. One study measured the potential effect of emerging contaminants on the Southern California coast by the collection of hornyhead turbot fish. This fish in particular was chosen because it lives in the depth at which wastewater is released. Samples from the fish from various locations were taken and tested for specific emerging contaminants. “These findings indicate that aquatic life is exposed to a wide variety of emerging contaminants, even after 100- to 1000-fold dilutions of wastewater effluent in the ocean.”
The lack of knowledge regarding emerging contaminants is due to the focusing of specified contaminants recognized decades ago. The list of contaminants is growing continuously, so the use of old data could be disastrous. The difficulties associated with assessment of the contaminants have to do with ”the distribution and bioeffects of these contaminants comes from a lack of detailed understanding of chemical and toxicological interactions in a very complex environment.” There are many unknowns when it comes to emerging contaminants, but NOAA suggests that these difficulties should be approached by infrastructure and new research initiatives.
NOAA’s Emerging Marine Contaminants Program is quantifying solutions to the unknown effects of marine ecosystems. They are currently developing methods to measure and characterize distribution of these widely various contaminants in marine ecosystems. They are also trying to assess the toxicity of these contaminants in marine species as well as humans. When the exact effect on these species, and subsequently humans, is determined, then new legislation protecting people and marine ecosystems may be enacted. Without further investigation, marine life will further suffer the consequences of manmade chemical pollutants.
About the authors: Sarah Bethel and Megan Won are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.