America's real drug problem

WASHINGTON — For many years, BASS Times has been sounding the alarm over the consequences of drugs being flushed into our fisheries and water supplies.

Researchers have already linked sexual abnormalities in fish and other aquatic creatures to the drugs flowing unimpeded into our waters, while the potential danger to aquatic life and our own health has been largely ignored by most state and federal agencies.

Recently, the Associated Press issued a comprehensive report on the pervasiveness of pharmaceuticals in our waters and fisheries following a nationwide investigation, and government officials have finally acknowledged the problem.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced an agreement with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the American Pharmacists Association "to help protect the nation's fish and aquatic resources from the improper disposal of medication."

"The campaign ... will inform people how to safely dispose of medicines in the trash and highlight the environmental threat posed from flushing medicines down the toilet."

That's welcome news, albeit long overdue and not nearly enough. An orchestrated public relations campaign may not be enough to adequately address the problem.

It's not the proper disposal of medicines at issue. It's the human excretion of those ingested medications that should remain the biggest concern because the country's wastewater treatment facilities do not remove them.

With a link already established between estrogenic compounds such as those found in birth control pills and sexual disruption in fish and other aquatic creatures, a growing number of experts now believe the human population could be at risk.

"Aquatic organisms, in general, are excellent indicators of environmental pollution," said a spokesman for the BASS conservation department.

"Unfortunately, we've been seeing some adverse impacts from pharmaceuticals on our fisheries for the last several years. However, for some reason, the vast majority of the public, including many policymakers, have failed to take notice and respond to this imminent threat. Now that humans appear to be at risk, maybe the right folks are willing to listen."

They may listen. But will they respond?

"Like the canary in the coal mine, the story of intersex fish may be an early warning [sign] of the effects that pharmaceuticals are having on the health of our waterways and on the people and organisms that depend on them," said a spokesman for American Rivers.

"There are myriad pollutants in our waterways, but pharmaceuticals are particularly worrying for a few reasons:

 They are designed to alter biological processes; the effects of chronic environmental exposure are poorly understood; and more and more drugs are being consumed and excreted or disposed of every year."

Possibly birth control pills and other endocrine disruptors are the pharmaceuticals of most concern at this early stage of the investigation into what we have done to our waters — and ourselves — with tons and tons of both prescription and nonprescription drugs.

"No one ever planned for fish to take birth control pills. But they are," reported the Chemical & Engineering News.

"As treated wastewater flows into rivers and streams every day, fish all over the world get a tiny dose of 17a-ethinylestradiol, a synthetic steroidal estrogen that's used in birth control pills."

This chemical and thousands of others are flushed down toilets each day through the bodies of those who take drugs for a variety of reasons. These drugs run the gamut — antidepressants, heart medications, illegal narcotics, among many.

One expert told BASS Times that up to 90 percent of the drugs remain unchanged and are still active after they are excreted by the human body.

Or the pills and capsules themselves are flushed into the local sewage system by consumers, hospitals and nursing homes.

Either way, most wastewater plants do not remove pharmaceuticals during their treatment processes, resulting in our lakes and rivers being turned into chemical brews.

In the 1990s, scientists in the United Kingdom learned that fish living downstream of wastewater plants were becoming "feminized." Researchers investigating other waters, including the Potomac River near the nation's capital, made similar discoveries.

Then last year, Karen A. Kidd, a scientist at the Canadian Rivers Institute, and her colleagues, revealed that spiking an experimental lake with an estrogenic compound nearly wiped out its population of fathead minnows. At first, the male fish exhibited delayed sperm cell development. Later, the same males started producing eggs. Eventually, the minnows stopped reproducing.

The lake trout population also plummeted. "The numbers of lake trout dropped not because of direct exposure to the estrogens but because they lost their food supply," said Kidd, in explaining the indirect, as well as direct, consequences.

On a positive note, once the researchers stopped adding the compound to the water, the fathead minnow population rebounded.

Outside of a controlled environment, however, that's much easier said than done, not only for endocrine disruptors but also for other drugs, such as antidepressants, which can slow development in frogs and fish, and anticonvulsants, which can harm invertebrate populations, according to Chemical & Engineering News.

And don't forget the antibiotics. Our overuse and misuse of them, both for ourselves and our livestock, may be creating antibiotic-resistant microbes.

Despite these threats to aquatic life and our own health, no one is suggesting that we stop taking properly prescribed antibiotics and other drugs. Rather, it's time to strengthen our investigations into possible consequences, develop methods of treatment that will prevent pollution of our waters with pharmaceuticals, and properly dispose of drugs that are not used.

"People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs it and it disappears. But, of course, that's not the case," said Christian Daughton, one of the first scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to draw attention to this issue that finally has gone mainstream.

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