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Great Lakes Article:

Editorial: Drug pollution/Now the fish are taking Prozac
Minneapolis Star Tribune
11/24/03


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 to emerge.

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 thoroughly.

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 for Prozac.

 

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