Pharmaceutical Drugs Contaminating Great Lakes, Threaten Ecosystems Elsewhere
Environmental scientists have been warning about a lesser-known problem related to the U.S. drug epidemic – streams, rivers, and lakes are becoming contaminated with both illicit and pharmaceutical drugs. Many chemicals are entering the water supply due to people flushing drugs, but they are also being expelled out of the human body via waste.
Once in the water, these chemicals can exist for long periods before they break down. Some research on the prevalence of illicit drug in bodies of water has even shown trends, such as high levels accumulating on weekends and spikes after events in which large amounts of drugs are used.
Dr. Emma Rosi is an aquatic ecosystem ecologist at the Cary Institute in New York. Rosi says, according to WOSU Public Media:
“What we use in our everyday lives goes down the drain and ends up somewhere, it just does.”
Rosi contends that when people use illicit and pharmaceutical drugs, they are “ending up in the waste stream and getting out into the environment as well, with unknown ecological consequences.”
According to the WOSU report, drug contamination has become a significant problem in the Great Lakes region, and researchers have discovered nicotine in Lake Michigan and pharmaceuticals in rivers in both Illinois and Wisconsin.
And in the Niagara River that flows into Niagara Falls, “elevated level” of antidepressants have been found in the brains of fish. Researchers believe it is possible that chemicals that affect humans could affect the behavior of fish, as well.
Some regions are taking steps to prevent such compounds from entering the aquatic environment. For example, drop-off sites for unused pharmaceutical drugs are becoming increasingly common.
If you are wondering about the filtration process, Erie Co. Heath Commissioner Gale Burstein says that the systems in water treatment plants “cannot rid us of all the pharmaceuticals that are flushed down the drains or flushed down the toilets.”
Moreover, many treatment plants lack the expensive technologies necessary to filter out chemicals such as amphetamines.
A study conducted by Rosi and others, described in the journal Environmental Science & Technology was among the first to examine the effects of recreational drugs on the environment.
Researchers tested multiple streams in and around Baltimore and found “numerous drugs” at six sites, including nearby forests. They sampled both urban and suburban sites in the Gwynns Falls watershed, as well as rural streams in a forested region near Baltimore.
Then they used a lab-created artificial waterway to create four streams that contained amphetamines and four that did not, in attempt to determine what effect amphetamines discovered in the water might be having on aquatic animal and plants.
To quantify changes, the researchers outfitted the artificial streams with rocks, microorganisms, bacteria, algae, and aquatic insects obtained from an uncontaminated stream in upstate New York.
They found that the main production of biofilm, a slime that serves as the basis of the food chain in most rivers was 85% lower in the lab-made stream contaminated with amphetamines. Also, the composition of bacteria was altered, and aquatic insects emerged earlier, resulting in an extended life cycle.
Changes were noted after one week, and after three weeks, tests showed that the amount and diversity of bacteria and algae were substantially different in the treated versus uncontaminated streams.
Researcher Dr. Sylvia Lee of the Environmental Protection Agency per the Cary Institute:
“Around the world, treated and untreated wastewater entering surface waters contains pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs that originate from human consumption and excretion, manufacturing processes, or improper disposal.”
Rosi said that the researchers had “every reason to suspect that the release of stimulants to aquatic environments is on the rise across the globe” and that “[M]ore work is needed on the ecological fate of these pollutants and the threat they pose to aquatic life and water quality.”
It’s Not Just Drug Users
Pharmaceutical pollution can also come from healthcare entities such as hospitals, or adult foster care homes where pills are routinely flushed or dumped down a drain rather than investing time or expense into returning them to pharmaceutical drug manufacturers.
And then, the makers themselves contribute to environmental pollution – water treatment facilities that receive wastewater from drug companies have been shown to contain levels of pharmaceuticals up to 1,000 times higher than those of other plants.
One final contributor is agriculture – most U.S. livestock are treated with antibiotics and hormones, which results in contaminated animal waste that can easily make it way into the environment.
Unfortunately, drug pollution is a problem on a global level. Researchers from around the world, including India and Germany, have found evidence of potentially harmful contamination. Fortunately, however, researchers are making efforts to develop new technologies for wastewater treatment plants that could be more effective removing drug chemicals from water.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology