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Are Our Medicines Tainting the Environment?

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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they are now," he says, and physicians and pharmacists could help by prescribing only what's needed and disposing of outdated drugs properly.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.

Vital Information:

  • 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 estrogen.
  • 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.
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