Are Our Medicines Tainting the Environment?
Among those chemicals are female hormones, found in birth control pills.
"The difference between a man and woman has to do with parts per trillion
of estradiol," Morris says. "These compounds have dramatic biological
effects at parts per trillion levels. So the concentrations we think aren't
worth worrying about may be worth worrying about."
One organization that apparently is not worried about drug pollution at this
time is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
"We know it's an emerging issue," says Meredith Art, media specialist
for the group. "We haven't seen any reports of drugs polluting the water in
the U.S. It's been mostly overseas from what we've read -- in Switzerland, the
U.K., and Germany. We really don't even know if these (pollutants) are
pharmaceuticals. It depends on how people are testing them."
But PhRMA could be seeing some U.S. results soon. Last year, the United
States Geological Survey (USGS) began testing for drug and household-product
residues in 100 streams it deemed "susceptible" to such contamination
-- ones located, for example, near animal feed lots or wastewater discharge
pipes. This year, the effort will be expanded to 25 more streams as well as
some ground wells.
"We are finding things," says Herb Buxton, coordinator for the USGS
Toxic Substances Hydrology Program in Trenton, N.J. "Some antibiotics, some
prescription drugs -- with a detection frequency up to 40%."
In other words, "things" are turning up in around 40% of tested
sites, though at low levels. They include various types of antibiotics -- which
the USGS looked for in all the streams -- plus 24 prescription and
nonprescription drugs that were looked for in a third of the streams, and
household products and sex hormones (such as estrogen) looked for in another
While health effects aren't the purview of the USGS, Buxton says the
organization is aware of the potential problems. Sex hormones from the
environment could disrupt normal functions of the human endocrine system, he
says. And some antibiotics could become less effective in people if bacteria
have been exposed to them in the environment.
Daughton says that although no one is sure of the importance of drug
pollution, it might be a good idea to try to curb it. He suggests that drug
companies start figuring out a way to individualize dosages to lessen waste.
"Dosages could all be much lower than they are now," he says, and
physicians and pharmacists could help by prescribing only what's needed and
disposing of outdated drugs properly.
That advice also applies to consumers, who are frequently told -- even by
pharmacists -- to flush leftover drugs down the toilet. Experts say that
timeworn advice, in light of the latest evidence, would seem, at the very
least, imprudent. But since drugs thrown into the garbage can end up in the
wrong hands, there may be no foolproof alternative, at least for now.
In Europe, people can return their expired drugs to pharmacists, Daughton
says, but no such disposal system is available in this country.