New Type of Pollution: Pharmaceuticals

June 24, 2013 (Canadian Recent studies are showing that aquatic life and water quality of streams, rivers, and lakes are being damaged by pharmaceuticals. A recent Ecological Paper focused on the damage and cost of these chemicals. We require further study to completely understand the effects on the environment and our fresh water.

Dr. Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, stated: “Pharmaceutical pollution is now detected in waters throughout the world. Causes include aging infrastructure, sewage overflows, and agricultural runoff. Even when waste water makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren’t equipped to remove pharmaceuticals. As a result, our streams and rivers are exposed to a cocktail of synthetic compounds, from stimulants and antibiotics to analgesics and antihistamines.”

Dr. Emma Rosi-Marshall worked with scientist and researchers at Indiana University and Loyola University Chicago, and found that 6 chemicals influenced rivers in the Maryland, Indiana and New York area similarly. They focused on 6 chemicals: caffeine, the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, the antidiabetic metformin, two antihistimines (cimetidine and ranitidine), and one antihistamine (diphenhydramine). She stated that: “We focused on the response of biofilms — which most people know as the slippery coating on stream rocks — because they’re vital to stream health. They might not look like much to the naked eye, but biofilms are complex communities composed of algae, fungi, and bacteria all living and working together. In streams, biofilms contribute to water quality by recycling nutrients and organic matter. They’re also a major food source for invertebrates that, in turn, feed larger animals like fish.”

Anyone who has ever walked a stream knows that the rocks and gravel are slippery and have to be careful. This is caused by biofilms. We have fallen a few times ourselves because of this. They found out that antihistamine (diphenhydramine) had a major effect on algae production and microbial respiration. Biofilms photosynthesis was reduced by up to 99% and also effected its respiration. This chemical also affected the types of bacteria present, promoting some while destroying others.

Rosi-Marshall pointed out that: “We know that diphenhydramine is commonly found in the environment. And its effect on biofilms could have repercussions for animals in stream food webs, like insects and fish. We need additional studies looking at the concentrations that cause ecosystem disruption, and how they react with other stressors, such as excess nutrients.”

The other chemicals studied also effected the biofilms, either separately or in combinations. More studies are required to find out the full extent of the damage being done to the strams, rivers and lakes. To be realistic, these chemicals, and others will not be eliminated from society. We depend on some of these chemicals in our daily lives. What we have to do is understand what these chemical are actually doing to the environment and come up with innovative solutions to our waste management plants to stop them from entering the environment. It is interesting to note that these are not the only chemicals we have to worry about. Back in 2010 we wrote and article on Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s). The universities have recently completed a 4 year study that shows that these chemicals are changing the sex of the fish. To read the complete article: Chemicals Causing Problems to Fish, are we next?

Wayne Sheridan