Tag Archives: Pharmaceuticals

Understanding how rogue chemicals affect people and marine life

Scientists are just beginning to understand the profound impact that synthetic chemicals are having on humans and other animals in the Puget Sound region.

As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing levels in their tissues. Photo: hj_west, www.flickr.com/photos/hjwest/
As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing average levels in their tissues.
Photo: hj_west

My latest story for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound addresses so-called chemicals of emerging concern. Please check out “Concerns rise over rogue chemicals in the environment.”

While talking to researchers and investigating a variety of biologically active compounds, I began to realize the complexity of the body’s internal chemistry. I thought I knew something about the endocrine system, but I never fully considered how one hormone can trigger responses in multiple organs, including the release of additional hormones, even creating feedback loops.

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Amusing Monday: Colbert talks drugs with Sammy the Salmon

Stephen Colbert: “Environmental scientists — this is true — have tested salmon in the Puget Sound out around Seattle. And they found that, because those salmon are near all these wastewater-treatment plants, the salmon are full of drugs, including Prozac. I don’t blame them, because if I spent all my life living in wastewater, I would definitely need a mood stabilizer.”

Stephen Colbert dedicated a portion of his “Late Show” with a humorous take on a recent scientific report about how drugs are passing through people’s bodies and ending up in Puget Sound, where they can affect fish, including salmon. This video has been viewed about 216,000 times since it was posted last Tuesday.

In the four-minute video, Colbert goes on to have a conversation with Sammy the Salmon, who seems clearly affected by the drugs he has been consuming.

On the serious side, you can read about the study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a Kitsap Sun story by reporter Tristan Baurick. Tristan’s story inspired me to write a “Water Ways” post about one possible solution being studied: building enhanced treatment processes into existing wastewater plants.

In other humorous news, perhaps you’ve seen the new SeaWorld commercial called “The new future of SeaWorld.” The ad promotes SeaWorld’s decision to quit breeding killer whales and to halt its theatrical shows with orcas but not to move them out of their tanks. Recall Water Ways, March 17.

PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, quickly posted a parody that you can watch in the second video player on this page.

If SeaWorld Ads Told The Truth

What if SeaWorld's new commercial told the truth? "Because you know what whales hate? The ocean." #LOL

Posted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on Tuesday, March 29, 2016

One other bit of humor came out in print last week as an April Fool’s joke from the Center for Biological Diversity. Here’s a quick sample from “Endangered Earth online.”

  • “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week confirmed rumors that the comb-over wilderness atop the pate of presidential contender Donald J. Trump is indeed “critical habitat” for more than 300 endangered species.”
  • “The Center’s innovative ‘Take Extinction Off Your Plate’ campaign — aimed at reducing meat consumption for the sake of people’s and the planet’s health — announced today it would be baking 10,000 kale-lentil muffins and delivering them to needy gray wolves across the West.”
  • “The Center went to federal court this week to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent finding that smooth jazz is ‘perfectly safe’ for people and wildlife.”

Specialized bacteria can remove rogue drugs during sewage treatment

UPDATE, March 10, 2016
I’ve added links for three previous reports related to the degradation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
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Concerns are growing about medications and person-care products that pass through sewage-treatment plants and into Puget Sound, where the chemicals can alter the physiology and behavior of fish and other organisms.

Almost everywhere scientists have looked, they have found drugs that people have either flushed down the drain or passed through their bodies. Either way, many active pharmaceutical compounds are ending up in the sewage at low levels. Conventional sewage-treatment plants can break down up to 90 percent or more of some compounds, but others pass through unaltered.

Now, researchers are working on a process that would use specialized bacteria to break down pharmaceutical compounds at existing sewage-treatment plants. The idea, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, is ready for a limited pilot project at one of the treatment plants in the Puget Sound region.

Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top treatment plant in the lab. UW photo
Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top sewage-treatment plant in the lab.
UW photo

Studies into this issue began more than 20 years ago, when it became clear that all sorts of compounds were passing through sewage-treatment plants and getting into the environment. Among the early findings was that male fish exposed to artificial birth-control hormones were changing into female fish. Later studies showed that common antidepressant medications seemed to be changing the behavior of fish, making them easier targets for predators.

In addition to estrogens and antidepressants, researchers have found blood thinners, cholesterol-reducing drugs, various heart medications, several hormones and painkillers, along with caffeine, cocaine and various cosmetic and cleansing chemicals.

A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency looked for 56 active pharmaceutical compounds in sewage effluent from 50 major treatment plants around the country, finding significant levels of many compounds.

A new study by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington looked at 150 compounds coming from two sewage treatment plants in Puget Sound. They were Bremerton’s plant on Sinclair Inlet and Tacoma’s plant on Commencement Bay. They also tested the local waters along with juvenile chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin to see if the fish were picking up the compounds.

According to a NOAA news release, the study “found some of the nation’s highest concentrations of these chemical compounds and detected many in fish at concentrations that may affect their growth or behavior.” For additional reporting on that study, check out the Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick and the Seattle Times story by Lynda Mapes.

These chemicals could be having effects on various animals in the food web — from benthic organisms that live in the sediments to marine mammals — but more study is needed. Complicating the situation is that multiple pharmaceutical chemicals may work together to create different effects, depending on their concentrations and the affected organism.

Many people would argue that we have enough information to dramatically increase our efforts to remove these compounds from wastewater going into Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs have been started in many cities and counties throughout Puget Sound to encourage people not to flush unused pills down the toilet or drain. See the Take Back Your Meds website. Still, Washington state has yet to develop a comprehensive statewide program that would cover everyone.

Meanwhile, nobody can say what percentage of the drugs going into the treatment plants were dumped down the drain versus being excreted from the human body. But it wouldn’t matter as much if the chemicals could be eliminated at the sewage-treatment plant.

More than a decade ago, Heidi Gough of the UW’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering began working on the development of bacteria that could break down these chemicals of concern. She and her colleagues have isolated cultures of bacteria that can break down triclosan, an antimicrobial; bisphenol A, a plasticizer; ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug; 17β-estradiol, a natural hormone; and gemifibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug.

The process of isolating helpful bacteria and boosting their numbers could theoretically be used to break down almost any chemical of concern. To be suitable, the bacteria must 1) break down the target chemical to a very low level, 2) grow well in common growth media without the target chemical, 3) break down the chemical even when other nutrient sources are abundant, and 4) work quickly within the normal rate of sewage treatment.

Nicolette Zhou, a former UW graduate student, worked with Heidi to successfully develop a bench-top treatment plant to test the process. Nicolette also produced a computer model of how the operation would perform at a large-scale treatment plant. She completed her analysis and received her doctorate degree last fall. Her latest findings are now awaiting publication in a scientific journal.

Previous reports:

  • Genes involved in Bisphenol A degradation, Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria, Pub Med.
  • Cultivation and characterization of bacteria capable of degrading pharmaceutical and personal care products, Pub Med.

Other systems have been proposed for breaking down complex pharmaceuticals, such as advanced oxidation or other chemical or physical treatment. But biological breakdown offers the most hope in the short term, because it is how most sewage-treatment plants work can be implemented quickly without major modifications and appears to be economical on a large scale, Nocolette told me.

In a large-scale system, the first step would be to identify the specific contaminants to be reduced and then select the bacteria. Some bacteria will break down multiple chemicals, she said.

The bacteria would be grown in a tank and be fed into the sewage digesters reactors, preferably in a continual flow. Multiple chemicals of concern might require several tanks for growing different bactieria.

If the process is successful and adopted by many treatment plants, an alternative process could be developed. Instead of growing the bacteria onsite, where conditions could be difficult to control, all sorts of bacteria could be grown in an industrial facility. The industrial plant would isolate the actual enzymes needed to break down the chemicals and ship them to the treatment plants. The enzymes could be stored and fed into the treatment process as needed.

The research into this treatment process has progressed to where the next step is a small-scale pilot project at a sewage-treatment plant in the Puget Sound area, Nicolette said. A portion of the actual wastewater would be diverted to the pilot plant, where sewage would be subjected to the specialized bacteria and tested for the level of treatment.

Ultimately, more studies are needed to establish a safe concentration for the various chemicals that come from pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. That way, one could culture the appropriate bacteria and establish a reasonable effluent limit for chemicals going into Puget Sound.

Studies examine effects of drugs on ecosystems

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.

Drug take-back programs could improve water quality

It is becoming clear that unused medications are getting into our waterways, but serious questions about how they’re getting there and how much of a problem they create for sealife are still largely unanswered.

For example, are the medications found in the water coming from people dumping them in the toilet, passing them through their bodies or doing something else entirely? What specific chemicals can be found in certain waterways and in what concentrations? How much of these chemicals does it take to affect marine life? What are all the possible effects, and are they really a threat to individual animals or entire populations?

I tried to cover some of these issues in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. An editorial appeared in the Sun today.

It’s easy to come up with questions, and it is clear to me that more research needs to be done. But another thing is equally clear, as pointed out by advocates of take-back programs and the Sun’s editorial: Making it easy for people to safely dispose of unused medications would be a step toward removing biologically active chemicals from our waterways.

Whether getting pharmaceutical companies involved in disposal is the right step or the only step is open to debate, as we’ll see when this issue comes back to the Legislature next year. But if someone opposes this approach, I hope they’re ready to recognize the problem and offer serious ideas for addressing the problem.

For additional information, check out:

House Bill 1165, allowing for the safe collection and disposal of drugs through a producer-funded take-back program

Washington state’s Unwanted Medicine Return Web site with a page with links to more information

In Kitsap County, unused medications can be taken to Group Health clinics, according to the county’s Moderate Risk Waste Program.

Margaret Shield of King County’s Local Hazardous Waste Management Program has compiled two documents filled with facts about:
Human Health Concerns (PDF 28 kb)
Environmental Concerns (PDF 108 kb)