Concern about pharmaceuticals in our water supply has been in the public consciousness for a few years now. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency found traces of various drugs in fish caught in rivers that receive effluent from wastewater-treatment plants. The drugs were believed to come from doses that people had excreted or flushed down the toilet. In response, FDA updated its guidelines for disposing of drugs. New research, however, shows another potential source of drugs in our waterways.
French scientists investigated fish called wild gudgeon that lived upstream and downstream of a steroid-manufacturing facility owned by sanofi. About 60% of the fish downstream of the facility had both male and female sexual characteristics, as opposed to 5% of the population upstream. Researchers identified pollutants such as diuretics and anti-inflammatory agents in the river. The fish’s abnormalities could prevent them from breeding and also signal problems in other species.
“People think drug release is regulated, but it’s not,” said Joakim Larsson, a pharmacologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, to Nature. But this lack of oversight may end: the European Commission is now considering whether to set limits on common drugs (e.g., ibuprofen and the contraceptive ethinylestradiol) in waterways.
Setting limits might prove difficult, however. Scientists have not yet determined safe limits for many pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment, or how widespread the problem is, according to Susan Jobling, an aquatic ecotoxicologist at Brunel University in London who spoke to Nature.
The French researchers’ findings certainly are alarming, but regulators won’t have a solid basis for any decisions until more information comes to light. I’m encouraged that sanofi is cooperating with regulatory agencies, researchers, and ecological associations to investigate the scope and root of the problem. In the meantime, the pharmaceutical industry would do well to keep this story in mind, and perhaps review whether it can reduce the potential risks of its waste-disposal procedures.
Also see my previous posts about pharmaceuticals in water: