Environment Canada study finds caffeine,
prescription drugs in St. Lawrence
By Deen Moore
Published July 4, 2006
MONTREAL (CP) - Environment Canada researchers have found
a dozen different types of toxic drugs and even caffeine
in water samples taken from the St. Lawrence River in
Although the amounts were minuscule, the study raises
many questions about the long-term effects of pharmacological
pollution in the country's waterways. "At this point
we have detected toxic substances but we don't know what
the real toxic effects are," Andre Lajeunesse, one
of several researchers involved in the study, said Tuesday.
The study found drugs ranging from caffeine and over-the-counter
ibuprofen to the prescription antibiotic oxytetracycline
and carbamazepine, prescribed to treat epilepsy and Alzheimer's.
The drugs were found in concentrations less than 10 micrograms
per litre after sewage treatment - "trace amounts,"
The human body disposes of excess medication through
urine but current sewage treatment methods were not built
to deal with those kind of contaminants, Lajeunesse explained.
Although the study dealt specifically with the St. Lawrence,
drug pollution in waterways is widespread, said Francois
Gagne, who authored along with two other researchers the
study published earlier this year in the journal Ecotoxicology
and Environmental Safety.
"When you're near a city, you're going to see it,"
Drugs, birth control hormones, Prozac and perfume have
all turned up in similar studies in the United Kingdom
and the United States in recent years.
U.S. and European studies have also found antibiotics,
anti-depressants, veterinary drugs and hormones in tap
Previous research from Chesapeake Bay to the Thames River
has blamed pharmacological and chemical pollution for
the feminization of wild male fish.
Testing has begun on fish, sediment and micro-organisms
in the St. Lawrence to try and determine the effects of
the pollution, such as:
Do the drugs accumulate in the small life forms and fish
that call the river home?
Is drinking water contaminated downstream?
Could currently harmless water borne bacteria build up
antibiotic resistance and become harmful?
The drug contamination is unsettling, said Isabelle Saulnier,
supervisor of the State of the St. Lawrence monitoring
program for Environment Canada, but the condition of the
historic riverway has improved greatly.
Mercury, PCB and metal contamination has decreased, she
"We know that the St. Lawrence is doing much better
than it has been for the past 30 years," Saulnier
Improved technology means researchers can now distinguish
between the different types of pollution in the river.
Twenty years ago studies revealed alarming levels of
PCBs in water, she said, and in ensuing years much has
A decade ago scientists worried about pesticide pollution
and today, she said, controls have been put in place and
pesticide levels have dropped.
The Sierra Club of Canada would like pharmaceutical companies
to take the lead in fine-tuning their products and eliminating
the drug pollution at the source.
"Of course, you want the pharmaceutical to work.
. . but you don't want it to contaminate the fish that
you eat," said Sierra spokesman Daniel Green.
There could also be a risk to humans who swim in contaminated
waters, eat fish from them or take drinking water downstream,
Authorities say a drinking water treatment plant for
Quebec City, downstream from Montreal on the St. Lawrence
is among 40 in Quebec that treat water for such pollutants.
Green said it's not enough.
"There is a very high level of human exposure and
at the end of the day we do not know what these chemicals