Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Studies examine effects of drugs on ecosystems

May 22nd, 2010 by cdunagan

Investigations are under way throughout the world to determine if drugs that people take for various medical conditions are getting into the environment and affecting other species.

So far, the answers are not entirely clear, but studies have shown that pharmaceutical compounds are getting into the water through sewers and septic systems. A story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun involves water samples taken in Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay, where extremely low levels of several compounds were found.

Despite intensive studies, effects on the environment remain uncertain. Part of the problem is the vast number of pharmaceutical compounds being consumed by people, while the compounds themselves are often found in very low levels in our waterways.

A good number of studies are focusing on the effects of synthetic estrogen, because there is growing evidence that the sex ratios of fish are being altered near some sewage-treatment plants by constant exposure to such compounds. Elsewhere, laboratory studies are exposing fish and other organisms to a wide array of medical compounds at various levels to see if effects can be observed.

It is a complex field of inquiry, according to researchers I’ve interviewed. Sometimes effects are not observed in fish exposed to the chemicals, but show up in their offspring. Some changes may be too slight to notice at first but may be observed after several generations.

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Check out the main page for general information or review the various areas of investigation.

The U.S. Geological Survey also is focusing studies on environmental effects of pharmaceuticals.

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Food for thought

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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