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Marine life shows disturbing signs of pharmaceutical drug effects

Marine life shows disturbing signs of pharmaceutical drug effects

Picture of Martha Rosenberg

Sixty percent of Americans now take prescription drugs—more than ever before. This not only creates unprecedented problems for municipalities whose water filtration systems were developed before wide drug use—but for marine life. 

Like canaries in the coal mine, the first signs of drug effects from the water often manifest in the fish. As early as 2003, scientists began finding egg cell precursors on male smallmouth bass testes which they attributed to endocrine disrupters. By 2014, an astounding 100 percent of male smallmouth bass in some polluted sites were "intersex"-- male fish that produce eggs. The same intersex phenomenon has been widely reported with amphibians.

Human drugs also contribute to the fish hormonal mutations. In 2011, after French anglers spotted abnormal fish, a study of wild gudgeon near a Sanofi plant making steroids found an average of 60 percent of tested fish had both male and female sexual characteristics. Fish near drug manufacturing plants in the U.S., United Kingdom, other European Union countries and India were also altered. "Many ecotoxicologists had assumed that water-quality standards, along with companies' desire to avoid wasting valuable pharmaceuticals, would minimize the extent of bioactive compounds released by factories into wastewater, and ultimately into rivers," lamented Nature about the high residues found. The diabetes Type II drug metformin is also a culprit in fish mutations.

Hormones are not the only drugs increasingly found in fish. In 2009, a study by Baylor researchers found traces of cholesterol, high blood pressure, allergy, bipolar and depression drugs in fish caught near wastewater treatment facilities in Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Orlando and West Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia. Some of the drugs actually change fish behavior.

When scientists at Clemson University, SC studied hybrid striped bass exposed to the antidepressant Prozac they found fish stayed at the top of the water sometimes with their dorsal fin out of the water.  Maintaining "a vertical position in the aquaria" could increase the bass' susceptibility to predators and decrease their survival noted the researchers adding that the Prozac-exposed bass also did not eat as much as normal fish.

A similar loss in survival behaviors is seen in shrimp exposed to Prozac. They are five times more likely to swim toward light than away from it, making them also more susceptible to predators report researchers. ''Crustaceans are crucial to the food chain and if shrimps' natural behaviour is being changed because of antidepressant levels in the sea this could seriously upset the natural balance of the ecosystem," says Dr. Alex Ford, from the University of Portsmouth's Institute of Marine Sciences.

Fathead minnows exposed to the amounts of antidepressants and anticonvulsants found in tap water at the University of Idaho also showed dramatic changes. After only 18 days they exhibited 324 genetic neurological alterations, some similar to the human disorder of autism said researchers. Perch fed anxiety drugs "socialized less but ate more zooplankton and swam further, behaviors with potential long-term consequences for local ecosystems," reported the New York Times.

Even drug makers are worried. "There's no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they're at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms," noted Mary Buzby, director of environmental technology for Merck.

For the environment, wildlife and human health, drugs in the water supply are a lurking, serious danger elected officials must address now.

Portions of this report originally appeared on Organic Consumers Association




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