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Originally published June 13 2007

Consumers' use of pharmaceuticals, personal care products polluting rivers and oceans with toxic chemicals

by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, NaturalNews Editor

Our water supply is becoming increasingly contaminated -- and not just by big factories dumping pollutants into the rivers. It is consumers, often unwittingly, who are poisoning rivers and oceans by sending potentially toxic chemicals down the drain. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated its researchers have found pharmaceuticals and personal care products -- or PPCPs -- in nearly every water supply they have tested.

The issue is not new. In the United Kingdom, the dangers of PPCPs were first recognized in the 1970s. In the U.S., however, it was another twenty years before the scientific community began to take notice, largely in response to the efforts of one scientist, Christian Daughton. Chief of the environmental chemistry branch of the EPA's Environmental Sciences Division, Daughton began reporting on the dangers of PPCPs in the water supply during the mid-1990s.

In 1999, Daughton co-wrote, with Thomas A. Ternes of the Institute for Water Research and Water Technology in Germany, the first comprehensive article on PPCPs in the U.S. water supply. The article "Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: Agents of Subtle Change?" appeared in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

This landmark article discussed how "priority pollutants," such as agrochemicals, were "only one piece of the larger puzzle" of human-made environmental risk factors. Daughton and Ternes wrote:

"One large class of chemicals receiving comparatively little attention comprises the pharmaceuticals and active ingredients in personal care products (PPCPs), which are used in large amounts throughout the world; quantities of many are on par with agrochemicals. Escalating introduction to the marketplace of new pharmaceuticals is adding exponentially to the already large array of chemical classes, each with distinct modes of biochemical action, many of which are poorly understood."

The authors went on to write that exposure to PPCPs, especially for aquatic organisms, may be more chronic than exposure to pesticides and other industrial chemicals "because PPCPS are constantly infused into the environment wherever humans live or visit." Daughton and Ternes warned in 1999 that prolonged exposure "could lead to cumulative, insidious, adverse impacts" that may not appear until it is too late to intervene.

80 percent of U.S. waters contaminated with "emerging contaminants"

That same year, the United States Geological Survey began surveying 139 streams across 30 states and found 80 percent of water samples contained residues of prescription and non-prescription drugs. In 2006, researchers on the project discovered "intersex fish" in the Potomac River. The fish were male but also carried eggs.

Researchers at the Great Lakes Water Institute in Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are currently studying the effects of PPCPs on the fathead minnow, a fish native to Wisconsin. Preliminary data have shown lipid-regulating compounds, such as Lipitor or Zocor, are causing fish to deposit fat into their eggs which might affect reproduction.

"Pharmaceuticals are designed for a very specific mode of action," lead scientist Rebecca Klaper stated. Klaper said some of the male minnows are "missing a few steps" as they prepare for mating.

Researchers are calling the pollutants "emerging contaminants." The term encompasses personal care products, prescription drugs, pesticides, and other substances, some of which are known to affect human hormone production. Experts predict the incidence of emerging contaminants will continue to rise. Daughton writes in the Renewable Resources Journal, "New drug entities, many with mechanisms of action never before encountered by biological systems, can be expected to enjoy continued introduction to commerce. All will have the potential to enter the environment merely as a result of their daily use (e.g., introduction to surface and ground waters via excretion, bathing, or disposal to sewage systems)."

In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this month, Daughton said the types of PPCPS found most in the nation's water supply fall into two categories. First are the drugs used most often, such nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (Ibuprofen is one example). Next, "the ones that resist our metabolism -- that is they get excreted unchanged -- will have a measurable presence in waterways," said Daughton.

"We probably have an idea of an unknown fraction of these chemicals that actually occur," he said, "The issue really is one of people being exposed to something they ordinarily never would... fetal exposure or pregnant mothers, for example."

Pharmaceuticals are now an environmental pollutant

Some pharmaceuticals enter the water stream when consumers flush them down the toilet -- for years a common practice in discarding unneeded or expired medication. Earlier this year The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly released new guidelines for disposing prescription drugs. The new guidelines urge consumers to discard prescription drugs in the trash by mixing the drugs with "an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter."

The federal guidelines stopped short of advising all drugs be disposed of in this manner. Consumers were advised to continue flushing drugs including oxycodone, morphine sulfate, and stavudine -- presumably to keep these controlled substances out of the hands of children and drug abusers.

Some states and locales have set up programs by which consumers and medical facilities (such as nursing homes and hospitals) can dispose of prescription drugs. Take-back centers include pharmacies, police stations, and recycling centers. An early pilot program in Maine was considered a success: "This one-day event prevented more than 55,000 pills from making their way into our waters and helped educate consumers about the importance for proper disposal of medical waste," said Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the Northeast Recycling Council, "We are hopeful that the success of this pilot will pave the way for similar projects in the future." In May 2006, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area dropped 3,634 pounds of medications during the area's inaugural "Safe Medicine Disposal Days" event.

While these take-back programs are commendable, they are not yet widely available. In Greg Critser's book, Generation Rx, Critser notes in America, the average number of prescriptions per person in 1993 was seven, but that had risen to 11 by 2000 and 12 in 2004. As the market for prescription drugs grows to include more and more children, plus aging baby boomers, the number of prescriptions per capita will likely increase. Even a small percentage of those drugs flushed into waterways poses a serious risk.

The threat posed by chemicals in personal care products

Prescription medications are not the only cause for concern. Consider parabens used in soaps, shampoos, moisturizers, and other personal care products. The EPA has reported that parabens -- methyl, propyl, butyl, and ethyl (alkyl-p-hydroxybenzoates) -- are endocrine disruptors. The EPA also stated "continual introduction of these benzoates (parabens) into sewage treatment systems and directly to recreational waters from the skin leads to the question of risk to aquatic organisms."

Don't count on the Food & Drug Administration to protect you from parabens. For cosmetic products, safety testing is not required. It is up to consumers to research ingredients and their effects. The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports "An average adult is exposed to over 100 unique chemicals in personal care products every day -- these exposures add up." The EWG has created a database of ingredients and safety ratings for more than 14,800 personal care products.

A few years ago, Christian Daughton posed the question, "Is the introduction of new chemicals to commerce outrunning our ability to fully assess their significance in the environment or to human health?" I believe the answer is yes, and we -- as consumers and as stewards of the environment -- must evaluate the choices we make every day in consideration of the long-term effects of our prescription use, of our dependence on over-the-counter medications, and of our use of chemically charged personal care products.

Note: Be sure to take a look at our CounterThink cartoon, Pharmaceutical Terrorism, for a satirical look at this issue.


The EWG Skin Deep report:

Official drug disposal policy:

SafeMeds (medication disposal):

Author Greg Critser:

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