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Are Our Medicines Tainting the Environment?

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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 third.

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.

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