Monday, June 02, 2008

Flush with drugs: a new database for common pharmaceuticals provides insight into surface water contaminantion

A while back I wrote about the “drugs down the drain” program, targeted primarily at those with unused drugs who might decide to tip those bottles of old aspirin, or unused antibiotics. Yes, yes, I know – there should be no such thing since we’re all told to complete the course. But – there have been times when amoxicillin just didn’t cut it. Those times when the kids’ ears still screamed with pain and a visit to the docs office leads to a mid-course correction - a stronger antibiotic– leaving a half-full bottle of the pink stuff in our fridge.

In these cases it’s important to dispose of the stuff properly – so they don’t end up medicating everything downstream. But what about the pain-killers, heart drugs, antidepressants, antibiotics, gastrointestinal aids that we (and here I’m using the royal WE) take daily? What happens to them when we, pardon the expression, pee?

According to a recent review (introducing a new database) by Emily Cooper and others, just published in Science of the Total Environment, “…between 30 and 90% of an administered dose of many pharmaceuticals ingested by humans is excreted in the urine as the active substance…” and “…up to 90% of drug residues may remain in effluent after [sewage] treatment…”

Although the fact that flushed drugs end up in local streams, rivers and estuaries isn’t new to me – these numbers are astounding. Just imagine if we could reclaim all those drugs. Why - in our school district that might just pull us out of the fiscal hell we've been experiencing for the past decade! And aside from all that waste (though it makes you wonder if pharmaceutical companies design them that way,) once they're in the water - they're no longer beneficial, but rather, environmental contaminants.

But wait – the astute reader (perhaps one of my astute students) might say. What about dose? Certainly the stuff gets diluted, certainly the local trout are not exposed to therapeutic doses of valium or Tylenol? Certainly not. But as the authors point out, several studies now show that chronic exposures to low concentrations can adversely impact aquatic organisms. And, don’t forget – that the Tylenol that I might send over to the local treatment plant will mix with my neighbor’s kid’s antibiotics, and the psychotherapeutics of another neighbor and …you get the picture. There’s a little bit of a whole lot of stuff going down all of our drains collectively.

So what to do with a problem so pervasive? Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Fortunately Cooper and co-authors introduce a new, fairly user-friendly database called “Pharmaceuticals in the Environment, Information for Assessing Risk” or PEIAR that will allow researchers and others to do just this.

After a quick tour, I found the site easy to navigate, and easy to track back to original sources, and full of useful information. However, since I’ve made a career of avoiding risk assessment I can’t comment on its utility to risk assessors. I’ll leave that to the pros.

Check it out at

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