Waste Pharmaceuticals Considered to be “Emerging Contaminants” in Surface Waters

    [released April 02, 2002]

    Pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and other organic wastewater contaminants found in 139 streams around the country made the headlines in March, 2002. Based on a U.S. Geological Survey study published in the March 15, 2002 issue of Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T), the presence of 82 of 95 common chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, was discovered for the first time due to advanced analytical techniques. While the presence of the chemicals is most likely not new, our awareness of them is and the implications are only beginning to be explored.

    Brice E. Erickson, associate editor of ES&T, provides further commentary in the April 1, 2002 edition in his article, Analyzing the Ignored Environmental Contaminants. In it Erickson notes that researchers such as Lynn Roberts, a professor of environmental chemistry at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, are now shifting their attention to these emerging organic contaminants. Roberts’ group is developing a list of the top 200 human prescription drugs used in the US as a focus for designing analytical techniques for future investigations.

    Erickson also notes that while the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products proposes environmental risk assessments be conducted on human medicinals if the predicted concentration in surface water is greater than 0.01 microgram/liter, the United States FDA requires such studies only if the concentration is greater than or equal to 1 microgram/liter, a tolerance 100 times greater. While this level was based on acute toxicity studies, it does not take into consideration the subtle effects of chemicals, including drugs, that affect the endocrine system, especially in developing embryos and the newborn, both human and animal. Such effects have now been documented to include feminization of males, infertility, behavioral changes such as hyperactivity, attention deficit syndrome, rage reactions to stress, and lower IQ.

    According to Stuart Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, also quoted in the Erickson article, antibiotics are the other class of emerging contaminants of great concern, due to their potential for developing antibiotic resistance in microorganisms.

    While answers are still elusive, the questions have been raised, insuring that waste pharmaceuticals will come under greater scrutiny in the future.