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The Animal-Threatening Pollution That Few People Talk About

June 23, 2015

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Story at-a-glance

  • Otters eat fish and crustaceans, food sources that are often contaminated with drugs and other chemicals from the water they inhabit
  • The presence of two types of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – diclofenac and ibuprofen – was detected in otter fur
  • Otters, which were only recently brought back from the brink of extinction, could be facing unknown health threats from pharmaceutical pollution in the environment

By Dr. Becker

Whenever you take a medication, 30 percent to 90 percent gets excreted when you use the bathroom. Other medications get flushed down the toilet as a means of disposal (not a very environmentally friendly one), while drugs given to agricultural animals also contaminate surrounding waterways.

We’re now at a point where pharmaceuticals in the environment may not only affect human health but the health of wildlife as well. Millions of vultures died off in Asia after exposure to an anti-inflammatory painkiller used in cows. Male fish have also been observed with feminized characteristics due to exposure to synthetic estrogens in the birth control pill.1

Otters, sadly, may be next in line, as researchers have discovered traces of drugs in their fur, which could be having serious consequences. As reported by the campaign group Chem Trust:2

“…[M]any other more subtle effects have been reported in animals and there is a paucity of monitoring data, such that there is little doubt that other pharmaceuticals will also be found to be causing effects in the future.

Aquatic wildlife is exposed to low levels of many pharmaceuticals, and as many rivers and groundwaters are also used as drinking water for humans, or as irrigation water for food crops, measures which reduce wildlife exposure will also benefit people.”

Two Types of Painkillers Detected in Otters’ Fur

Otters eat fish and crustaceans, food that is often contaminated with drugs and other chemicals. In 2011, research was published showing the presence of two types of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – diclofenac and ibuprofen – in otter fur collected from six counties in England.

As Chem Trust explained, these drugs only add to the chemical load to which otters are exposed to in their everyday environment. This is especially tragic since otters have already been brought back from the brink of extinction once before. Between the 1960s and 1980s, otters declined in Western Europe and North America.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are now banned but formerly were used for many industrial purposes (including electrical oils, lubricants, adhesives, and paints), were to blame. In addition to causing cancer and adverse effects to the immune system, PCBs are endocrine-disrupting chemicals capable of harming the reproductive system.

According to Chem Trust:3

Subtle effects on the reproductive organs of otters have also been noted in those from polluted areas. Organ weights were compared between otters that had died in the Lower Columbia River and those from other geographical areas.

Baculums (penis bones) and testicles of young males were shorter or smaller than in animals of the same age class from non-polluted areas.”

In addition to pollution, habitat loss and hunting have also put otters at risk. In the US, such factors have reduced the otter’s range to one-third of its original size. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted:4

“Humans are probably the most important enemy of the river otter, affecting this species through direct (i.e., trapping) and indirect (habitat alteration, pollution) means.”

Other Species at Risk from Pharmaceutical Pollution

Pharmaceutical pollution is by no means a threat directed at only one species or one country. It’s a worldwide problem, and one that has the potential to threaten virtually every species on the planet.

As recently reported in the journal Philosophical Transactions B:5

“Expanding and aging human populations require ever increasing amounts of pharmaceuticals to maintain health. Recent studies have revealed that pharmaceuticals, both human and veterinary, disperse widely in aquatic and terrestrial environments with uptake into a range of organisms.

Pharmaceuticals are designed to have biological actions at low concentrations rendering them potentially potent environmental contaminants. The potential risks that pharmaceuticals pose to the health and long-term viability of wild animals and ecosystems are only beginning to be assessed and understood.”

For instance, exposure to low concentrations of psychiatric drugs can alter foraging patterns, activity levels and risk-taking behaviors in fish and birds.6

The common antidepressant fluoxetine has been found to cause starlings to eat less,7 and synthetic estrogens in birth control pills reduce fish populations in lakes.8 Changes such as these have the potential to affect the entire ecosystem.

As reported in The Guardian:9

“Another new study, led by Karen Kidd at the University of New Brunswick, showed synthetic estrogen used in the birth control pill not only wiped out fathead minnows in lakes used for experiments in Ontario, but also seriously disrupted the whole ecosystem.

The lakes’ top predator – trout – declined by 23-42%, due to the loss of the minnow and other prey, while insects increased as they were no longer being eaten by the minnows.”

What Can Be Done to Help Stop Pharmaceutical Pollution?

On an individual level, you can help by not flushing unused medications down your toilet or drain. What should you do with them instead? Some states are considering legislation that would require drug manufacturers to develop and pay for a program to collect residents’ unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and safely dispose of them.

As it stands, however, the EPA and other government agencies have released the following guidelines for “safely” disposing of drugs:

  • Throw most drugs in the trash after crushing them or dissolving them in water, mixing them with kitty litter, coffee grounds or other unappealing materials, and placing the mixture in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Remove and destroy any prescription labels before throwing away the containers.
  • In some states, pharmacies can take back medications. When in doubt, you should ask your pharmacist for advice.

Unfortunately, some of these suggestions merely move the environmental peril from one place to another -- such as diluting medicines in water and mixing them in garbage that eventually ends up in a landfill anyway … but it does stop the drugs from travelling through water treatment systems that are ill-equipped to treat them.

On a larger scale, Chem Trust recommends that new medicines be designed so they don’t persist in the environment, and sewage treatment works be improved to treat medications that come through.

The organization continued:10

“In addition, the European Union should strengthen laws relating to the pollution of rivers with pharmaceuticals, and there also needs to be better international coordination on this issue.”

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Sources and References

  • 1, 2 ChemTrust “Pharmaceuticals in the Environment: A Growing Threat to Our Tap Water and Wildlife”
  • 3 Chem Trust, Otters and Mink
  • 4 US EPA, Species Profile, River Otter
  • 5, 6 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, May 2015, Vol. 370, Iss. 1667
  • 7, 8 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, November 2014, Volume 369, Issue 1656
  • 9 The Guardian October 13, 2014
  • 10 ChemTrust December 7, 2014
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