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Traces of pharmaceuticals in waterways may change the behavior of fish. That’s the
conclusion Swedish scientists reached in a recent study. But scientists admit they
don’t know a whole lot more than that. Amber Binion reports.
It’s more than just fish that act funny. The Swedish study, published in Science
Magazine in February, found that the perch exposed to the anxiety drug, Oxazepam,
no longer stick with their school. Instead, they venture out by themselves. The
scientists speculate that the fish are braver because the drugs make them calmer.
Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey says that could
lead to a shift in the ecosystem.
ACT: Those kind of behavioral effects, even though they’re subtle, they
ultimately could have consequences to the organism’s ability to reproduce
and maintain their population levels.
Drugs enter waterways when medicines go undigested by humans or leftover
drugs are flushed down the toilet. Scientists have been studying pharmaceuticals
in waterways since the 1970s. A few years ago researchers from the US Geological
survey sampled streams near sewage plants that flow into the Hudson River for
pharmaceutical compounds. They found that concentrations, which included
painkillers like methadone and oxycodone, were less than 1 microgram per liter.
Doesn’t sound too dangerous, right? But USGS’s Dana Kolpin says researchers don’t
know the long-term effects of low-level exposure to these medicines for fish or any
ACT: The real unknown is there human consequences. If we’re drinking
water with low-level of pharmaceuticals, is that something we need to be
concerned about or not?
Kolpin says there’s no good answer to that.
ACT: Certainly we should be aware. We still don’t know the consequences.
But I think we should put more research to see if there is more potential
But leading environmental groups haven’t been doing that research. Take
Riverkeeper, for example, which monitors the Hudson and other New York
waterways. Tracy Brown, their water quality advocate says for now the organization
is more concerned about other contaminants in water.
ACT: We have such a big problem already on our hands with dumping
untreated sewage. Because we haven’t seen evidence of acute impacts on our
wildlife, at this point its not one of our priorities.
Even if scientists concluded that there was a lot of contamination, Kolpin says it
would be difficult to keep it out.
ACT: There’s a lot of research looking into the various treatment
technologies to see which ones are better at moving certain compounds than
others. All these treatment technologies come with a cost. You’re talking
about multiple millions of dollars and when you do upgrade, they tend to be
more energy hungry.
For now, there is one a way to minimize to the problem. That’s to make sure people
dispose of drugs properly and not flush them down the toilet. In 2008, the New York
Department of Environmental Conservation began a campaign to accept unwanted
drugs in disposable bins at community pharmacies. But here in New York City,
it’s not so easy to find those bins. At a chain pharmacy on the upper west side of
Manhattan, employees weren’t even sure what they were.
ACT: Me: Excuse me do you have a drug disposal bin here?
Pharmacy Asst: No we don’t.
Me: Did you ever have one?
Pharmacy Asst. No.
Me: Do you know where I can find one?
Pharmacy Asst: Mmmm. No.
Instructions for safe disposal are posted in New York pharmacies. Dana Kolpin
of the USGS says the problem might be solved with greener and more degradable
pharmaceutical options. Amber Binion, Columbia Radio News.