Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Drugs in the Environment—They’re Everywhere

“Some waters being drank cause madness, some
 drunkenness and some laughter to death.”
                    –The Compleat Angler, 1653

Last year I attended a conference on the presence of pharmaceuticals and other drugs in the environment, particularly those in the water supply.  I was curious about what current research revealed about the effects of the various chemicals and compounds on public health, on the environment and on wildlife. 

What I came away with is that the research has been inconclusive.  The good news is that studies found that most drugs occurred in very low levels in the environment, well below amounts that would threaten human health.  They also did not produce acute toxicity (i.e. death) in wildlife populations—at least not very often.  Scientists reported studies of endocrine disruption and changes in “reproductive organs in fish and amphibians, which were troubling but unresolved. There simply has not been enough research and many questions remain.  For example what are the potential cumulative impacts of exposure to more than one chemical—either to humans or wildlife?   There is much work left to be done to fully understand the possible effects of the various substances that make it through water treatment systems or reach our waterways through storm events, runoff, septic systems, sludge and other sources.

Fish and wildlife showing adverse effects of drug contamination in waterways

Pharmwaste Flushed medicine showing up in lakes, fish – article from MI
Persistence in the environment

What goes down the drain, from ibuprofen to soaps, gets turned out to pasture via toxic sludge, researchers warn

However, studies do demonstrate that drugs and chemical compounds are pervasive in the environment.  They are found throughout our waters, including public water supplies.  By far the most common drugs found in the environment were not prescription drugs, but rather the over-the-counter personal care products and other commonly consumed substances like caffeine and ibuprofen. They are pretty much everywhere.  This means that fish and animals throughout the U.S. are all being exposed to uppers, downers and painkillers.  And I can’t help wondering what physiological and behavioral effects these substances will have over time on wildlife populations.

How do wildlife populations react to mood-enhancing substances?  Does their behavior change?  What happens if a squirrel gets too much caffeine?  Could they become even more hyperactive?  Or if beavers are on uppers?  Would they spend so much time partying that they stopped building dams?  Or a depressed trout?  Would it oversleep and miss the latest hatch? 

Wildlife is being exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis.  Exposure to these substances could change behavior.  Exposure could also alter physical health. In fact studies suggest it does.  These changes could be minimal or they could be substantial.  The point is, we don’t know.  And we should.

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