Drugs flushed down the toilet affect aquatic life, says US EPA

The Guardian reports, 20th May 2015: “Doctors should take into account the ‘downstream’ effects on the environment when they prescribe drugs, suggests a scientist at the US Environmental Protection Agency

Around 80% of aquatic pharmaceutical pollution comes from domestic medicines (those that we take at home rather than in hospital), and while unused drugs that have been deliberately flushed down the toilet are a problem, the biggest source is excretion.

Around 80% of aquatic pharmaceutical pollution comes from drugs taken at home, and the biggest source is excretion.

Around 80% of aquatic pharmaceutical pollution comes from drugs taken at home, and the biggest source is excretion.
Photograph: Alamy

Drugs are designed to alter human physiology at low doses and so can make particularly potent contaminants. Recently, UK rivers were found to be harbouring bacteria with genesgene A string of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule that is the fundamental unit of inheritance, so it is variations in the make up of this molecule in the gene that controls variations in an organism's appearance and behaviour. Genes are found in the nucleus of the organism's cells. for antibiotic resistance as a result of waste water treatment. Antidepressants in sewage are known to disrupt the reproduction of molluscs and crustaceans. They have also been reported at trace levels in Polish tap water, though the risk (if any) to humans is unknown.

Waste products from the contraceptive pill skew sex ratios in fish, and the anti-inflammatory painkiller diclofenac has contributed to the deaths of millions of vultures. In 2013, the EU added diclofenac and the hormones 17α-ethinylestradiol and 17β-estradiol to an environmental pollutant “watch list”, meaning that their levels in surface water are now being monitored — though not yet controlled.

A recently published paper reports that at least one pharmaceutical contaminant — the anti-anxiety drug oxazepam — has a potentially beneficial effect, extending the lifespan of perch. However, the study was conducted under lab conditions rather than on fish exposed in the wild, and it’s not necessarily good news (unless you’re a perch) because we don’t know what the knock-on effects on the wider ecosystem could be.

Source: The Guardian, 20th May 2015. For the full text, see www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/aug/08/drugs-toilet-pharmaceutical-pollution


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