10 Bizarre Ways Pharmaceutical Drugs Change the Environment

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Pharmaceutical drugs are being prescribed more than ever to both humans and animals. In the United States, over 70 percent of adults use some form of prescription drug. It was only in the late ’90s that researchers realized these drugs could have a profound impact on the environment thanks to improper disposal or chemicals entering the water through our bodily waste. These drugs are incredibly helpful to humans, but they can have a devastating effect on the world’s ecosystem.

10. Contaminates Water

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While current sewage management systems remove a lot of waste from water, there are no sewage plants equipped to filter out chemicals from drugs. After leaving treatment plants, sometimes the water re-enters bodies where we get our drinking water from. There are cases of treated municipal sewage being released into waterways all over the world.

In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey tested 139 rivers in 30 states. They found 80% of them contained traces of pharmaceuticals, hormones and steroids. Many of these drugs are also found in our drinking water. The good news is that the levels aren’t high and the chemicals in the water aren’t harming us. However, it’s a growing concern for experts, as research into pharmaceuticals in the water was started just over 10 years ago. The long-term effects are still unknown.

9. Makes Marine Life More Reckless

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One of the most commonly prescribed medications is antidepressants, with 13 percent of American adults having a prescription. That makes for a lot of chemicals entering the water system through the toilet, and made researchers curious as to how this would affect a species like shrimp.

In a lab, researchers exposed shrimp to a small amount of fluoxetine, which is one of the main components in anti-depressants like Prozac and Sarafem. In the ocean, to avoid predators and stay safe, shrimp tend to hide in dark places. However, after slight exposure to fluoxetine, the shrimp became much more reckless. They were five times more likely to go out into bright, open areas. If this were to happen in nature, it would make the shrimp much easier prey, which could devastate their population.

8. Makes Aquatic Life More Aggressive

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In a lab, researchers introduced a small amount of antidepressants to water that housed cuttlefishes. Despite their name, cuttlefishes are molluscs, so they’re similar to squids and octopuses.

Researchers put a shrimp, which is what cuttlefishes eat, in a test tube and dipped the end of the tube into the water. The cuttlefish that weren’t exposed to the drugs gave up trying to get the shrimp when they realized they couldn’t get through the tube. However, the ones that had been exposed to the drugs were much more aggressive and wouldn’t stop trying to get the shrimp, wasting a lot of energy in the process. When they tested antidepressants on crayfish, they found that males exposed to anti-depressants would fight longer and mortality rates went up.

7. Can Be Devastating to Zooplankton

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If anything in an ecosystem goes wrong it can cause a devastating ripple effect. One species that’s a major part of the foundation of freshwater ecosystems are zooplankton. These microscopic plankton eat algae, and then in turn fish eat them. If their numbers are depleted, algae would overgrow and fish mortality rates would go up.

So a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison performed a number of tests on Daphnia, a genus of zooplankton. She put the Daphnia into water with environmentally relevant concentrations of fluoxetine, a cholesterol lowering drug, and five common antibiotics. At first she subjected the Daphnia to one drug at a time. She found that with the antidepressants, the Daphnia had more offspring. When exposed to antibiotics, the Daphnia lived longer. Both would upset the amount of zooplankton in an ecosystem.

But when exposed to a mixture of the antidepressant and cholesterol drug she found that 90% of the plankton died. When they did have offspring, they were mostly female and mostly deformed. The cholesterol drug didn’t really have much of an impact on its own, but when mixed with just one other drug like it would be in nature, it was destructive.

6. Feminizes Marine Life

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Hormonal contraception, a birth control method, adds estrogen and progestin into the user’s body. After the body uses the estrogen, it leaves through waste. So while hormonal contraception is helpful to humankind, it can be devastating to ecosystems. A researcher at the University of New Brunswick added a little bit of estrogen to a test lake. Shortly after, male fathead minnows started to develop eggs. Due to the feminization of the minnows, their population plummeted to just one percent of what it was before. The lake trout, which ate the minnows, had their numbers drop as well, while insects, the minnows’ source of food, had a population increase. When the estrogen was removed from the system, the population of minnows replenished to the numbers they had before.

5. Contaminates Soil

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It’s believed that hundreds of millions of farmers around the world use human sewage for fertilizer and wastewater to irrigate crops. In fact, more than half the treated sewer sludge from American waste facilities is used as fertilizer. The U.S. Geological Survey did research on soil after it had been fertilized. They found traces of pharmaceuticals, cleaners, cosmetics, perfumes and chemicals from soaps. One of their worries is that these traces didn’t stay on the top layer, but could be found as far down as seven feet below the surface. When chemicals get that deep they can affect water sources, which adds even more chemicals to contaminated drinking water.

4. Alters Plant Growth

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With 30 million prescriptions written every day, diclofenac and ibuprofen are two of the most widely used drugs in the world. Researchers at the University of Exeter wanted to see how traces of these painkillers affected the growth of different plants. They found that the drugs affect vegetables in very specific ways. For example, when radish roots are treated with diclofenac they have growth problems. Ibuprofen, on the other hand, had an impact on the early development of the roots of lettuce plants.

It’s important to note that this is preliminary research, and the study used one drug at a time. In biosolids, the crops are exposed to a number of different chemicals from drugs. It’s still unclear what impact they’ll have on crops and the people and animals that eat them, especially when the chemicals are mixed with pesticides.

3. Almost Wiped Out Three Species of Vultures

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Humans aren’t the only species to use pharmaceutical drugs. In the United States alone, the animal pharmaceutical industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. While the FDA and other federal regulators have deemed treated animal meat safe for human consumption, it can have pose a far greater danger to ecosystems.

In the late ’90s, three species of white vultures were dying off in large numbers in South Asia. In 2002, researchers did a study in Pakistan and discovered that the cause was the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, which was given to cattle to reduce fevers. The researchers believe that the vultures ate from carcasses of cattle that had been given the drugs, which caused kidney failure in the birds.

Diclofenac was responsible for wiping out 95% of the three species, which were put on the critically endangered list. With such a fast decline in numbers, a number of ecological problems emerged. Animals like feral dogs and rats, which compete with vultures for carcasses, were able to flourish. Unfortunately, they’re natural reservoirs for disease. Without the vultures to keep their numbers in check, it’s increased their chances of spreading disease like rabies and even the bubonic plague to animals and humans.

2. Possible Link to Prostate Cancer

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Doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto found that countries with high rates of women using oral contraception also have men with a high prostate cancer mortality rate. But they didn’t find a significant link with other forms of contraception, like condoms. Also, there was no difference between rich and poor countries. The pill is the cheapest form of birth control, so it’s used around the world. Raises in hormonal levels being linked with cancer is nothing new — birth control pills have a significant link to breast cancer.

The researchers believe that, while only a small amount of estrogen is passed into the system via urine, there are so many women that have taken birth control since the early ’80s that it’s caused low level environmental damage to both food and water sources. However, the researchers also pointed out that they’re not sure exactly what the cause and effect is, and they don’t want to encourage women to stop taking the pill.

1. Antibiotic Resistance

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People are becoming more resistant to antibiotics. This is especially true in places like China and India, where most antibiotics are produced. These facilities don’t exactly have the highest standards for waste disposal, and chemicals from drugs gets into drinking water. Livestock and fish ingest the water, and then we eat them and build up more of a resistance. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928 100 classes of antibiotics have been discovered, but no new compounds have been found since 1987. Bacteria are constantly evolving to resist antibiotics, which means we’re quickly running out of effective antibiotics. It’s thought that having antibiotics in the water is only speeding up the process. Resistance to bacteria is already becoming a big problem in Europe, and scientists believe it’s only a matter of time before we live in a post-antibiotic world. Even common infections could then become deadly.

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Robert Grimminck is a Canadian crime-fiction writer. You can follow him on Facebook, on Twitter, or visit his website.


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