No one doubts that one of the great aims of modern medicine is to alleviate suffering. In fact, today there is a pill for just about every ailment our bodies experience, from the life-threatening to the simply inconvenient; we spend billions of dollars each year, hoping that these medications will prolong and improve our quality of life. But what about the other costs, the ones that go far beyond our pocketbooks?
Scientists have long known that pharmaceuticals are contaminating America's waterways, passing through wastewater treatment plants without detection or monitoring and accumulating to measurable levels. Now, as the effects of these drugs become apparent, we are beginning to see just how big of a price we may be paying.
A recent study in the Great Lakes by Steve Mauro and colleagues looked at the effects of just one drug, fluoxetine, the active ingredient in Prozac, a common anti-depressant. Although the overall concentration of fluoxetine in the lakes is relatively low, only about 1 nanogram per liter of water, laboratory studies show that the drug is still likely killing off helpful bacteria that are essential to the well-being of the larger ecosystem. Other studies suggest that fluoxetine may also alter the reproductive cycle of fish and mollusks at higher concentrations.
Even more troubling is the source of the drug. The areas sampled by Mauro near Presque Isle State Park in Lake Erie lie far from waste water outfalls, implying that Prozac has spread throughout the Great Lakes and is accumulating.
And Prozac is not the only problem. Other medications — including NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), beta-blockers and synthetic hormones — have all been found in the Great Lakes and are all known to cause problems in aquatic species. Hormones, which can have dire effects on the sexual maturation and reproduction of many organisms, are especially dangerous, even at very low levels.
To make matters worse, more than 26 million Americans rely upon the Great Lakes for their drinking water; every time we turn on our taps we're getting a pharmaceutical cocktail of unknown composition. While most experts agree that the drugs are still at levels too low to affect human health, continued accumulation will undoubtedly lead to increasing problems.
To learn more about pharmaceuticals and the risk they pose to species — including humans — check out this report
by the Alliance for the Great Lakes
. Dispose of your unused pharmaceuticals responsibly and ask officials in your area to support more stringent forms of wastewater treatment. The Great Lakes are the world's largest aquatic ecosystem and also our largest reserve of fresh water; losing them would be a hard pill to swallow indeed.
Photo: Alan Vernon/Flickr