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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pharmaceuticals in Aqua

Air Date: Week of

Common pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, antiseptics, beta-blockers, and cholesterol-lowering drugs, have been showing up in lakes and rivers, according to new research done in Europe. The drugs don't appear to be coming from manufacturing plants because some were found in the surface water of nations where the drugs are not produced. So, the studies' authors conclude that people and farm animals are passing the drugs through their urine into the watershed. Steve Curwood spoke with Janet Raloff (RALL-off) who is a senior editor at the magazine Science News.


CURWOOD: Common pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, antiseptics, beta blockers, and cholesterol-lowering drugs, have been showing up in lakes and rivers, according to new research done in Europe. The drugs don't appear to be coming from manufacturing plants, because some were found in the surface water of nations where the drugs are not produced. So, the study's authors conclude that people and farm animals are passing the drugs through their urine into the watershed. In some cases, the absorption rate of a drug is as low as 10%; the rest is excreted. Janet Raloff is a senior editor at Science News. She says she was surprised by what she discovered covering this story.

RALOFF: It sort of blew me away. (Laughs) I wasn't expecting it at all. I guess if I'd really thought about it, maybe I should have expected they might be in there, and that's in fact one of the reactions I get from some of the scientists I talk to. That gee, I hadn't thought about it, but it must have been going somewhere. I guess it makes perfect sense that it ends up there. What surprised me even more is that some people who one would think have been charged with making sure the environment stays relatively clean haven't been focusing on this issue at all. There are no measurements made of our water. They're being made now, periodically in various places in Europe, and wherever they look they find this stuff. The more they look, the more they find.

CURWOOD: Now, is our government, is the US Government at all interested in funding this line of research in the wake of what's being found in Europe?

RALOFF: Well, let's say I haven't found people who are interested in funding it yet. The philosophy seems to be that EPA doesn't have responsibility for looking for these things in the United States. That would be the Food and Drug Administration. And that EPA doesn't have really enough money to be doing what it's supposed to be doing, which is cleaning up standard pollutants, so it's not supposed to be out there. Congress has told that it's not supposed to be out there looking for new problems. The feeling I got was that the spirit was willing; the funding just wasn't there to go ahead and do it.

CURWOOD: What's a concern here? Why does it matter that all these pharmaceuticals are getting into rivers and streams?

RALOFF: Nobody's quite sure exactly what they should be most concerned about if anything. The general feeling is that what probably would present the first line of risk would be the antibiotics. If small concentrations of these antibiotics are showing up all over the place, they may end up encouraging antibiotic-resistant, the buildup of bacteria that can live in the presence of these antibiotics. Then, when they encounter them in the human body, they just sort of laugh at the antibiotics and people stay sick. Whether it's a legitimate risk, nobody really knows. Nobody's really tested at this point.

CURWOOD: Is there anything else to be worried about regarding these pharmaceuticals in water?

RALOFF: Well, people are concerned about the estrogen-mimicking chemicals. There is some concern that it could affect fish and other small biota. For example, bacteria, little crustaceans, the bottoms of lakes and streams. But nobody's quite sure. They have found concentrations recently at levels that are sufficient to feminize fish, so clearly something very strange is going on. And it can happen at the level at which these things are showing up in certain water supplies.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff, what about places where treated wastewater gets into the drinking water supply? People who get water from rivers, that sort of thing. Is anyone testing for the presence of pharmaceuticals there?

RALOFF: They're not testing in the United States. They are testing in a few places sporadically in Germany, in particular Berlin and Wiesbaden. The levels they're finding are very small, generally lower than what you're finding in surface waters such as streams. Maybe in the parts per billion range, more likely in the parts per trillion range. Nobody has any idea what this means. The levels are so much lower than you would be exposed to if you were taking a drug for a therapeutic purpose. But remember, these are in people who aren't sick, and they may be exposed their entire life every day. So it's a really different situation and people haven't a clue what the long-term implications might be.

CURWOOD: Now, one reason we're finding it is what? Because of new technology?

RALOFF: That's part of it. That's right; you have to have some very sensitive analytical techniques. And you have to have for the most part crackerjack chemists who are focusing on this. The other thing is, you have to know what you're looking for. It's not like you just analyze some water and you see 50 or 100 different chemicals in it. In order to find and understand what those chemicals are, you have to actually be looking for many of these things specifically. People tended to find this when they did initially because they were looking for chemicals that were similar in structure to these drugs. They were actually for the most part pesticides. And when they found something that looked like the pesticide they wanted but was a little bit wrong, they weren't quite sure why but they would just look a little closer and see if the analytical techniques were off a bit. It turned out they weren't, and what they were finding was a structure that was off a little bit. And the more they looked, the more they realized these things were in fact drugs, and not the pesticides they'd initially been focusing on.

CURWOOD: Is this a solvable problem? Do we have the technology available now that could take pharmaceuticals out of water?

RALOFF: I don't think anyone's really looking at it. But there's no reason people shouldn't be able to. It's just a matter of deciding that's what you want to do. Presently, wastewater treatment plants aren't designed to take them out because people hadn't really thought about whether they might be there. If they worked on it, I'm sure they could. The people I talked to suggest it's doable. It's just a matter of sort of setting your mind that that's the priority for what these treatment plants are supposed to do.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff is a senior editor at Science News. Thanks for joining us.

RALOFF: Thank you.



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