Improper Drug Disposal May Harm Fish
September 19, 2005
Release from: Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - Scientists are calling it a prescription drug dilemma with potentially damaging side effects.
Academics, state officials and environmental advocates are starting to question whether massive amounts of discarded pharmaceuticals flushed down the drain pose a threat to the nation's aquatic life and possibly to people.
In waterways from the Potomac River to the Brazos River in Texas, researchers have found fish laden with estrogen and antidepressants. Many of those show evidence of major neurological or physiological changes.
No one has seen evidence of effects ...view middle of the document...
EPA officials say they still are gauging the seriousness of the threat. Technological advances in testing make it possible to detect very low levels of hormones and chemical compounds in waterways, they say, and it is unclear whether such levels harm animals or people.
Hal Zenick, who monitors health issues in the EPA's Office of Research and Development, said several agencies are working to determine whether such contaminants "lead to exposures, and do these exposures have implications for health effects."
Others, including drug manufacturers and sewage treatment operators, say that while they are monitoring the contaminants, their threat has been overstated.
Thomas White, an environmental consultant for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said industry studies indicate there are "no appreciable human health risks" and no "appreciable impacts on the aquatic environment" linked to drugs in the water.
In recent months, however, scientists have issued a series of findings suggesting that discarded drugs, which pass through municipal wastewater systems and into rivers, lakes and streams, could affect the environment. In 2002, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study found these kinds of contaminants in 80 percent of the 139 streams it sampled in 30 states.
Other researchers suspect that hormones and medicines in the water may be responsible for effects on wildlife that include feminizing male fish and making others sluggish or uninterested in eating.
Timothy Gross, a USGS toxicologist, has spent several years studying how fish are faring downstream from Las Vegas.
He examined three species -- carp, largemouth bass and the endangered razorback sucker -- and detected "a very large and marked decrease in sperm quality and quantity" in all three populations.
There are enough carp and bass to withstand such effects, Gross said, but the razorback sucker may not recover. "When you have a species already on the brink, this may push them over the brink," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has secured $2.5 million in the past decade to fund the Geological Survey's water quality studies in the Las Vegas Valley, said the government needs "to do a comprehensive national study to determine how these contaminants might affect our health, our water supplies and our environment."
State and local officials are growing increasingly impatient. David Galvin, who manages the hazardous waste program in King County, Wash., is coming under pressure from county residents to collect unused pharmaceuticals from hospitals as well as from elderly residents' homes.
He is working with the nonprofit Product Stewardship Institute in Boston to start a national dialogue between drug manufacturers and government agencies on how to minimize the environmental impact of discarded medicines.
"Otherwise, we at the local level are going to be stuck with figuring out how to deal with it and...