Drugging The Water  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Sonia Shah (author of "Crude:The Story Of Oil") has an article at Yale Environment 360 on pharmaceuticals polluting water systems - As Pharmaceutical Use Soars, Drugs Taint Water and Wildlife.

The standard that new drugs be safe for human consumption was first enshrined in U.S. regulations in 1938, after an antibacterial drug dissolved in a poisonous solvent killed 100 children. Now, armed with a range of evidence suggesting that wildlife and human health may be threatened by pharmaceutical residues that escape into waterways and elsewhere, a growing band of concerned ecotoxicologists and environmental chemists are calling for yet another standard for new medications: that they be designed to be safe for the environment.

The movement for “green pharmacy,” as it has been dubbed, has grown as new technology has allowed scientists to discern the presence of chemicals in the environment at minute concentrations, revealing the wide dispersal of human and veterinary drugs across the planet. In recent years, scientists have detected trace amounts of more than 150 different human and veterinary medicines in environments as far afield as the Arctic. Eighty percent of the U.S.’s streams and nearly a quarter of the nation’s groundwater sampled by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been found to be contaminated with a variety of medications.

This contamination is poised to worsen as the global appetite for medications swells. The drug industry sold $773 billion worth of drugs worldwide in 2008, more than double the amount sold in 2000, and with an aging population and ever-cheaper manufacturing, pharmaceutical production is expected to grow 4 to 7 percent annually until at least 2013. Americans bring home more than 10 prescription drugs per capita per year, consuming an estimated 17 grams of antibiotics alone — more than three times the per capita rate of consumption in European countries such as Germany. U.S. livestock consume even more, with farmers dispensing 11,000 metric tons of antimicrobial medications every year, mainly to promote the growth of animals.

Drugging our bodies inevitably drugs our environment, too, as many medications can pass through our bodies and waste treatment facilities virtually intact. And it is difficult to predict where and how unexpectedly vulnerable creatures may accrue potentially toxic doses. Take, for example, the ongoing mass poisoning of vultures in South Asia by anti-arthritis painkillers.

The popular anti-inflammatory and arthritis drug, diclofenac, is sold worldwide under more than three dozen different brand names, and is used in both human and veterinary medicine. In India, farmers started dosing their cows and oxen with the drug in the early 1990s to relieve inflammation that could impair the animals’ ability to provide milk or pull plows. Soon, about 10 percent of India’s livestock harbored some 300 micrograms of diclofenac in their livers. When they died, their carcasses were sent to special dumps and picked clean by flocks of vultures. It was an efficient system, for unlike feral dogs and plague-infested rats, South Asia’s abundant vulture population — estimated at more than 60 million in the early 1990s — carried no human pathogens and was resistant to livestock diseases such as anthrax.

But vultures who fed on the treated carcasses accrued a dose of diclofenac of around 100 micrograms per kilogram. A person with arthritis would need 10 times that amount to feel an effect, but it was enough to devastate the vultures. Between 2000 and 2007, the South Asian vulture population declined by 40 percent every year; today, 95 percent of India’s Gyps vultures and 90 percent of Pakistan’s are dead, due primarily to the diclofenac that scientists have found lurking in their tissues. South Asian and British scientists who experimentally exposed captive vultures to diclofenac-dosed buffalo found that the birds went into renal failure — scientists still don’t know why — and died within days of exposure. As the vulture population has declined, the feral dog population has boomed, and the Indian government’s attempt to control the rabies they carry has started to flounder.


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