Anti-Depressants Getting
Into Our Water Supply,
Rivers, Lakes
By Roger Dobson
An investigation is to be launched into the environmental effects of pharmaceuticals amid new fears that tons of anti- depressants and scores of other toxic drugs are polluting rivers, threatening fish life and getting into drinking water.
Pharmaceutical companies are being given until the end of the year to supply data on their drugs to the Environment Agency so their impact can be researched.
Scientists in Europe have discovered that increasing numbers of complex drugs - including heart medication, anti-depressants, anti-epileptics, anti-cancer chemicals, cholesterol-lowering medicines, sex hormones, antibiotics, hormone replacement, aspirin, vitamins and ibuprofen - are surviving the human digestive system, passing through sewage works and entering rivers and the sea.
Dr Thomas Ternes, of Germany's Institute for Water Research, carried out sampling at one sewage works outfall and found 36 different drugs, plus five other compounds that had been metabolised from them before they left the patient.
Scientists are blaming the drug pollution for some of the widespread and until now unexplained mass deaths of tiny aquatic organisms. Some drugs, especially anti-depressants, have also been found to alter sperm levels and spawning patterns in aquatic life. Musks and chemicals used in perfumes, and compounds from suntan lotion, have been found to have accumulated in fish.
Each year in Britain about 600m prescription drugs and medicines are dispensed.
Most of the research on environmental effects on drugs in rivers has been done in Germany and Denmark; little has been carried out in Britain.
However, later this month at a world congress of scientists in Brighton, the Environment Agency will lay down the timetable for an investigation into the effects of the drugs.
"We have commissioned a review, which is due to be completed within the next two weeks. There is limited data in Britain about this issue and we don't routinely monitor," said Dr Steve Killeen, head of chemistry at the agency.
"The report will make a series of recommendations, including getting the pharmaceutical industry to provide us with better information by the end of the year. If we find that levels of drugs are causing environmental damage, regulations are an option open to us."
Stricter regulations could involve the need for more complex sewage works to screen out the chemical compounds.
A conference to be held in America next month will also attempt to quantify the problem for the first time.
"Just about everything people put into their mouth eventually gets into the water," said Dr Christian Daughton, chief of environmental chemistry for the US Environmental Protection Agency.
"Serotonin, for example, has been used to induce spawning in molluscs. Many anti-depressants which are ending up in
rivers are designed to interfere with serotonin production in humans and may affect spawning," he said.
"Pharmaceuticals are perhaps also one of the reasons for unexplained mass die-offs in some organisms that we see from time to time."


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