August 14, 2013

What Happens When Pharmaceuticals Enter the Environment? ~ Lucy Olivia Smith

The Drugs We Wash Away.

We’ve come a long way in medical science.

It’s definitely progress that I can walk into a pharmacy and get antibiotics when I need them, and that my grandfather with diabetes can take a daily medication that allows him to live his life somewhat normally.

In fact, the availability of medication has become easy and socially acceptable.

IMS Health estimates that 19 million Americans rely on some form of anti-depressants, and this trend is not isolated to America. In Europe, the use of anti-depressants has increased 80% in the last decade. In addition to mental health medications, heart disease, diabetes and a myriad of other ailments are increasingly prevalent among members of our global society and require daily drug prescriptions.

Without going into the debate about the use of medication, I would like to focus on the issue as it comes full circle.

While we are increasingly aware of the impact drugs have on humans, our knowledge of the environmental impacts remains rather obscure.

One of the results of medicinal consumption is the eventual re-release of medication and medicinal residues into the environment via waste water, dumping and improper disposal.

Increasingly, scientists are finding small concentrations of drug residues in lakes, rivers, and human drinking water.

While these levels are significantly low and do not present a threat to human health at this point, they are having interesting and important effects on species and ecosystems.

Scientists can now see how fish are affected by involuntary medication as low concentrations of drugs make their way into marine habitats. These low concentrations have serious effects on the behavior of species and ecology.

For instance, scientists at Umea University in Sweden studied Perch, and found that anxiety moderating drugs (Oxayepam) made this species into brave, aggressive, asocial creatures that left the habitual safety of the school to hunt on their own. Doing so greatly increased their vulnerability to bigger predators.

These kinds of behavior changes might seem harmless, but they have repercussions on the delicate balance of ecological relationships that constitute marine ecosystems.

One obvious way to curb this problem would be to encourage people to take less medication. But that seems misdirected, as medicinal use will probably increase as population increases and economic development brings about a swelling of the middle class.

Since medications often end up in water resources due to poor management of sewage and waste water, perhaps developing techniques to separate and remove drug residues would be more practical.

In Sweden, where this is already identified as an issue, they have developed a treatment technology, utilizing membrane distillation that effectively removes drug residues from sewage.

While this may not be a hot environmental topic, it’s an important one that might have easy solutions once the technology becomes available and widespread. However, change can only occur when well-informed consumers put some well-placed pressure on governments, and do their own bit by tweaking their behavior in small but meaningful ways.


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Asst. Ed.: Moira Madden/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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