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Hubert Neely Blog

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From pharmacy to fish

Posted at 10:32 on 1/6/2007
Flushing old pills down the toilet or throwing them in the trash might clear out the bathroom cupboard, but scientists around the country are finding that these drugs are winding up in our lakes and streams - and creating problems for fish that swim in them. The Food and Drug Administration regulates roughly 11,000 drugs on the U.S. market. Unwanted medications that are flushed into wastewater or seep into groundwater at landfills eventually expose water creatures to thousands of chemicals that interact with their bodies like medications a interact with the human body. So what's the alternative? Jeff Gloyd, director of the La Crosse County Household Hazardous Waste Program, thinks there is a better way to handle unwanted medications so they don't get into the water supply: by treating it as hazardous waste. "It's all pretty new," Gloyd said. "It's a topic that has really come to a head." Fish are used as an indicator of the ecosystem health as a whole, Gloyd said. If fish are unhealthy, human health might be affected as well. In 1999 and 2000, the first nationwide study by the U.S. Geological Survey collected water samples from 139 streams across 30 states. Pharmaceuticals and other organic contaminants were found in 80 percent of the streams sampled. Though most of the water samples held traces of pharmaceuticals deemed safe for wildlife and drinking water standards, many of these small amounts were mixtures of chemicals that might be more toxic than each chemical alone. In early March, Gloyd met with about 20 representatives of water and waste treatment plants, pharmaceutical and health care industries, and city and county officials to discuss the idea of having a permanent medication collection at the Household Hazardous Waste Collection Facility. La Crosse County residents would be able to drop off their unwanted medications during regular business hours at the facility, located adjacent to the county landfill along Hwy. 16. The danger The prevalence of prescription and over-the-counter drugs in the water is clear. The impact on wildlife and human health is not as clear, but aquatic scientists around the nation are scrambling to find out. Researchers at the Great Lakes Water Institute in Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students have been trying to find answers since last summer, taking their research vessel out to Lake Michigan, where they have studied the fathead minnow - a long, silver fish native to Wisconsin. Rebecca Klaper, the lead scientist in the study, said preliminary data show that some of the same biochemical pathways are "turned on" in the fish as in humans. "Pharmaceuticals are designed or a very specific mode of action," Klaper said. The fish biochemical systems are responding to the chemicals the same way the human body responds. In particular, the researchers have found in their preliminary data that lipid-regulating compounds, such as Lipitor or Zocor, are causing fish to deposit fat into their eggs, which might affect reproduction. Antidepressants, such as Prozac, appear to be affecting the nervous system of male fatheads, leading to abnormal behavior when preparing the female for nesting. Klaper said some males are "missing a few steps" when they prepare the female for nesting. Typically, she said, the male cleans an area under a rock or stick for her nest, chases her there and performs a dance to get her to lay eggs. As in the USGS study, the concentrations found by Klaper's team were low, but other factors might have more severe implications than what the data reveal. "It impacts the development of the fish over time," Klaper said. "They are dosed at such an early stage and constantly, whereas humans taking these medications are much older." Klaper said that they are still at an early stage of research. The cure La Crosse County might be leading the country by setting up one of the first permanent medication disposal sites. "There are three things we want to make sure happens," Gloyd said. "One is to follow all laws, two is to do this in the most environmental way possible, and three is to make this a permanent year-round collection." Joe Kruse, a Franciscan Skemp administrator who is spearheading the proposal with Gloyd, said "the main goal is to raise public awareness and to create some options for citizens to not just throw (medications) away, and especially not flushing them." Medications would be collected just like other hazardous waste. People would dump their old pills straight into a 55gallon container of solvent, which dissolves the pills into a useless brown muck. The drums are then shipped away for incineration. One hurdle to pass is making sure collection complies with strict Drug Enforcement Administration regulations of controlled substances. Because only law enforcement officials are allowed to handle drugs in this category, like OxyContin and morphine, Gloyd and two other hazardous waste staff would have to be "deputized" - taking an oath that gives them limited deputy responsibilities such as handling controlled substances.
by Grimm, Elena
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