Drug pollution/Now the fish are taking Prozac
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Go ahead and giggle, if you like, at the news of Prozac
being found in Texas bluegills. It's hard to be entirely
somber when faced with fish on antidepressants, and the
chief researcher invited some levity when he answered
the inevitable reporter's question by saying the drug
appeared to relax them:
"Maybe it makes you a happy fish and you're kind
of hanging out. But how does that influence your ability
to capture prey? Do you instantly become candy for largemouth
bass?" and so on.
Still, there is an obviously serious side to what seems
the first confirmed instance of pharmaceutical pollutants
accumulating in the tissues of wildlife.
Pollution of groundwater from drugs and so-called personal
care products is only beginning to get the attention it
deserves from researchers and regulators. The presence
of these chemicals and their metabolites has been known
for years, but now the evidence of impacts is beginning
One study suggests that fluoxetine hydrochloride, known
commercially as Prozac, retards the development of fish
and delays metamorphosis in frogs. Other work suggests
that estrogen-related chemicals are "feminizing"
male fish by altering their reproductive anatomy, and
that antibiotic residues are raising the resistance of
waterborne germs. While nobody has yet demonstrated a
direct threat to human health, there are concerns about
the vulnerability of children to very low doses of such
chemicals--traces of which may turn up in tap water.
Risk assessment is in the early stages, but much more
is known about the scope of contamination: It is widespread
and rising. Where 20 years ago it was a curiosity to find
traces of caffeine, nicotine and aspirin in wastewater,
scores of compounds are now routinely detected.
Leading the list are antidepressants, birth-control hormones,
over-the-counter pain relievers, insect repellents, antibiotics,
disinfectants, deodorant fragrances, anti-cholesterol
drugs--a mirror of modern medicine and lifestyle. A sampling
last year by the U.S. Geological Survey found such compounds
in 80 percent of the 139 waterways it tested in an effort,
perhaps belated, to establish benchmarks for monitoring.
These materials follow obvious pathways into the environment
-- they pass through human bodies, and unused portions
are flushed and pitched without any precaution. Large
animal-feeding operations contribute heavy loads of antibiotic
and hormone residue. Substantial amounts may be discharged
by manufacturers as well.
Some European countries have been working for a decade
to curtail such pollution and upgrade water treatment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and
Drug Administration are just beginning to consider how
to address the problem. But the initial findings of harm
to wildlife are leading some scientists to advocate for
better wastewater treatment -- reconstructed wetlands
appear to provide especially effective filtration -- and
to ask whether drugs and cosmetics could be formulated
in ways that allow them to break down more quickly or
Those seem to be prudent avenues for inquiry. The alternative
is to wait for some clear harbinger of disaster before
taking any remedial action. That approach has been tried
many times before, of course -- and if you think for very
long about the consequences, you could become a candidate