By Sarah Starr
Americans are prescribed millions of prescriptions a year—livestock are given even more. After running their course through the body, these pharmaceuticals do not dissolve completely, and experts believe that 90 percent of the chemicals are released into our water system and soil unchanged.
During recycling processes at water plants, prescription drugs are not detected or removed. The tap water that we drink can contain such the remnants of drugs ranging from Prozac to birth control. With the formation of a major pharmaceutical market only a phenomenon of this past century, studies on the impact of this so-called “pharmaceutical pollution” are only now beginning to arise.
Christian Daughton, chief of the Environmental Chemistry Branch for the Environmental Protection Agency, explained how these processes are handled.
“My job is to find these analytical methodologies to best evaluate the water supply,” Daughton said. “Then we give these facts to other organizations that analyze the possible effects on organisms. It’s a large team that works nationally to help address this environmental topic.”
In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted the first assessment of pharmaceutical pollution in the nation’s waterways. During 1999 and 2000, a network of 139 streams in 30 states were sampled and analyzed for the presence of pharmaceutical pollutants. The streams drain watersheds of varied climates, geology, land use, and size. Most sites were located downstream from areas of intense urbanization and livestock activity, where wastewater is known or suspected to enter the streams. About 80 percent contained trace amounts of contaminants, and half the streams contained seven or more chemical compounds. One-third of the streams contained 10 or more compounds.
One major problem stemming from pharmaceutical pollution is antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When drugs are excreted in waste, the compounds linger in the environment. In the case of livestock waste, antibiotic-laced manure is spread directly onto farm crops as fertilizer. From there it may run off into nearby streams.
The result is that bacteria are able to mutate into strains resistant to widely used antibiotics, paving the way for infections that cannot be easily cured. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 2 million hospital patients that get infections each year, 90,000 die. More than 70 percent of the bacteria that cause the infections are resistant to at least one common antibiotic that is typically used to treat them.
Zak Kulberg, a fourth-year UC Santa Cruz student, feels that the pharmaceutical industry should be the first to take responsibility for the possible effects of pollution.
“The pharmaceutical industry should be a role model of the environmentally conscious, and should start taking responsibility for the effects it has on the environment and our water sources,” said Kulberg, who has designed a major to study the problem.
Though a number of ongoing studies are being conducted, little is yet known about the true nature of pharmaceutical impact on the environment. The situation is similar locally.
Bill Kocher, director of the Water Department for Santa Cruz City, stated that few measures have been taken in Santa Cruz simply because the problem has been noticed so recently.
“Pharmaceutical pollution is a fairly new concern, and much research has to be done on it,” Kocher said. “Most of it is probably overblown, but should still be addressed. The fact is we are fouling our nest.”