Study Finds Alarming Amount of Drugs in U.S. Waterways

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Writer

The first nationwide study of the amount of human drugs found in the nation’s fish population has uncovered an alarming cocktail of pharmaceuticals in fish caught near  wastewater treatment plants serving five major U.S. cities. The results have prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to expand its study to 150 additional locations in the U.S.

According to a report by the Associated Press, researchers found residue in fish tissue of a wide variety of medicines including drugs used to treat high cholesterol, allergies, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder and depression. Even though amounts found in the fish are too small to threaten human life if they should eat the fish, researchers say that even extremely diluted concentrations of pharamaceuticals can harm fish, frogs, and other aquatic life who are constantly exposed the contaminated water.

However, the bigger issue is the safety of the nation’s drinking water.

“The average person hopefully will see this type of a study and see the importance of us thinking about the water that we use every day, where does it come from, where does it go to? We need to understand this is a limited resource and we need to learn a lot more about our impacts on it,” said study co-author Bryan Brooks, a Baylor University researcher and professor who has published more than a dozen studies related to pharmaceuticals in the environment.

The study tested fish found near wastewater treatment plants Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Orlando, Florida. Brooks and his colleague Kevin Chambliss also tested fish in New Mexico’s pristine Gila River Wilderness Area, an area isolated from human sources of pollution, for comparison purposes.

This is not the first study to detect the presence of pharmaceuticals in the nation’s waterways. For instance, a 2002 study performed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found a long list of compounds in the nation’s waterways including the painkillers acetaminophen and ibuprofen, prescription medicines for cardiac disorders and hypertension, and female sex hormones used in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy.

Researchers say fish absorb pharmaceuticals from the rivers they live in which are contaminated with traces of drugs that are not removed in sewage treatment plants. Much of the contamination comes from unmetabolized residues of pharmaceuticals that people have ingested and excreted or from medications that are dumped down the drain.

In addition to expanding its research to include 150 more U.S. waterways, the EPA is also calling for more studies about the impact on humans of long-term consumption of minute amounts of medicines in their drinking water, especially in unknown combinations. Limited laboratory studies have already found that human cells fail to grow or take on unusual shapes when exposed to combinations of some pharmaceuticals found in drinking water.

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