The Globe and Mail
Calgary -Canadian rivers and streams are contaminated
with a range of pharmaceutical drugs that present
unknown dangers to people and wildlife, a study
currently being considered by the federal government
Painkillers, anti-inflammatories and prescription
drugs used to treat epilepsy and blood cholesterol
were found in waters near sewage-treatment plants
across the country, according to the first nationwide
Canadian study of the problem, paid for in part
by Environment Canada and obtained under the Access
to Information Act.
The study, which confirms suspicions held by some
Canadian scientists for many years, was based on
tests of water samples taken near sewage-treatment
plants in 14 different cities as well as in open
water at various points along the Great Lakes. Although
European and U.S. research has documented the problem
in those jurisdictions, this is the first study
to verify its existence in Canada and determine
"[It proves] drug contamination does occur in
the Canadian environment and North America context,"
said Chris Metcalfe, a professor of environment
and resource studies at Trent University in Peterborough,
Ont., who headed the research team that conducted
"In some cases, we're actually getting higher
concentrations of these drugs than what we see in
Among the other drugs discovered by Mr. Metcalfe
and scientists at Environment Canada's National
Water Research Institute in Burlington, Ont., but
not included in the study, were antibiotics, Prozac
and drugs common in birth-control pills.
All of the pharmaceuticals have been found in
extremely low concentrations, in some cases one
part per billion and one part per trillion. But
it is unclear what impact they are having on people
and wildlife - in laboratory tests, even small traces
of drugs have disrupted hormones and turned male
fish into females.
Scientists worry that people with allergies to
drugs may be at particular risk. They are also concerned
about what kind of pharmaceutical soup is being
created by mixing all of these chemicals together
in the waterways. And there is a fear that their
presence in water systems will increase resistance
"I don't think we really know what the impacts
are," Mr. Metcalfe said.
"But what we're concerned about is that these
drugs are designed to have certain effects at low
Scientists stress the importance of the fact that
the drugs have been found near sewage-treatment
plants, not in drinking water, so people are not
necessarily consuming them. But they also point
out that no Canadian studies have yet examined whether
the drugs are in drinking water, either in wells
or out of the tap.
Mark Servos, a scientist at the National Water
Research Institute, says Environment Canada is setting
up studies to look at drinking water, adding that
that technology has become available only recently
to test for trace amounts of drugs in water.
"We don't really have enough data to answer those
kinds of questions yet," Mr. Servos said. "It's
a really new issue. People have not thought of drugs
as environmental contaminants until the last four
or five years."
The study, which was conducted in 2000 and 2001,
has been submitted for peer review and has not yet
been published. But scientists at the National Water
Research Institute have duplicated its results,
Mr. Servos said.
"We're pretty sure if you go to a sewage-treatment
plant anywhere in Canada you're going to find prescription
and non-prescription drugs."
That's because sewage-treatment plants were not
designed to cope with pharmaceutical drugs, which
have been found in waters surrounding cities such
as Calgary, which boasts some of the most advanced
treatment facilities in North America.
John Jagorinec, a lab-operations supervisor with
the city, said he was not surprised by the results,
adding that Calgary is working with researchers
to test for other drugs.
"Everyone uses pharmaceuticals from time to time,"
Mr. Jagorinec said.
"Inevitably, we end up flushing those drugs down
the toilet in one form or another."
Governments must crank up research and testing
for the drugs while updating sewage-treatment plants
to ensure pharmaceuticals do not end up in the drinking
water, Mr. Metcalfe said.
With a growing and aging population, he says the
amount of drugs in the water will only get worse.
"Things aren't going to get better in terms of
the concentrations of drugs and other contaminants
in the environment unless we take steps now."