Is my water drugged?

When I brought home my pack of antibiotics from the doctor last month, it was with a heavy heart – not just for the unwanted side effects that I had been sentenced to bear but the damage to the environment.

Mankind is dosing itself with such high levels of pharmaceuticals including painkillers, tranquilizers, anti-depressants, antibiotics, birth control pills, estrogen replacement therapies, chemotherapy agents, anti-seizure medications, etc that these compounds are finding their way into rivers, groundwater and ultimately drinking water. Municipal sewage treatment plants are generally not equipped to remove complex pharmaceuticals and these dangerous compounds are poised to make a huge impact in the coming decades.

The presence of pharmaceuticals in water is not a new phenomenon. For as long as prescription drugs have been in vogue, these chemicals would have been flowing into waterways. But today, the consumption of pharmaceuticals is much higher than before simply because populations are rising, diseases are rising and new drugs are being synthesised and prescribed.

Sceptics might point out that it is only thanks to the new, hi-tech instruments that we are able to detect contaminants right down to ppb level. So we are finding pharmaceuticals now only because we have the capability to measure them. Also, even though a great portion of drugs are excreted from human waste, the concentrations detected in streams are far below the prescription doses.

What risk does chronic exposure to trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals pose? The truth is that no one knows. Would there be behavioural or psychological or reproductive effects? Many scientists are concerned that a number of these drugs have the potential of interfering with hormone production. Chemicals with this effect are called endocrine disrupters which could cause adverse changes in human health. There is also a fear that trace antibiotics in the environment are spawning new generations of drug-resistant bacteria.

Most scientists agree that aquatic life has very little tolerance for contaminants such as drugs. For example, anti-depressants have been blamed for altering sperm levels and spawning patterns in marine life. A recent British report has blamed human estrogen for playing havoc with the reproductive systems of male trout. We already know about the widespread prevalence of mercury in fish today, to the extent that health specialists advise the public from minimising their consumption of fish and seafood. This is nothing short of a tragedy – fish is one of the richest sources of nutrients, yet humans are poisoning this very source.

Along with pharmaceuticals, personal care products are showing up in water. Generally these chemicals are the active ingredients or preservatives in cosmetics, toiletries or fragrances. Researchers have reported that the amount of pharmaceuticals and personal care products entering the environment annually is about equal to the amount of pesticides used each year. Recently, many rivers in the USA have been found to contain a toxic antimicrobial chemical widely used for decades in hand soaps and other cleaning products, but rarely monitored in the environment.

One might ask – are current water treatment technologies capable of removing pharmaceutical contaminants? The good news is that advanced water treatment technologies such as membrane filtration, ozonation, UV treatment, granular activated carbon etc have been proven to be effective in removing many pharmaceuticals from drinking water. However such advanced processes are not available or economical at all locations.

How do we begin to control environmental contamination? The first step should be control at the source. Minimising overuse and misuse of drugs, design of environment-friendly chemicals and point-of-use treatment are control measures that need to be implemented fast.

Governments can play a big role in control measures. Recently in Maine, USA, several governmental departments collaborated to allow all citizens to bring in their unwanted or expired medications for proper disposal. The public brought in more than 700 containers of medicines which were then incinerated to prevent them from entering waterways.

Time is of essence. As the saying goes:

When all the land is destroyed, 
and all the fish are dead, 
then will man learn 
that he can’t eat money. 

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