Are Our Medicines Tainting the Environment?
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disposing of outdated drugs properly.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.
- Researchers in Europe are finding a variety of drugs in river water and
sediment, probably coming from sewage and/or improper disposal.
- In this country, scientists are just beginning to study the presence of
therapeutic drugs in the environment. So far, they are finding antibiotics and
other prescription and nonprescription drugs, as well as sex hormones such as
- Although the effects of this drug pollution on the environment or on humans
are not well understood, some experts advice pharmaceutical companies to
individualize drug dosages to cut down waste, pharmacists to dispose of drugs
properly, and people not to flush them down the toilet.