For centuries chemists have been inventing synthesized organic compounds to mimic and increase the potency of certain plants with natural healing properties. These potent petroleum-based substitutes are considered a modern marvel in medicine, aimed at specific ailments with many unintended direct effects (side effects). One unintended direct effect of this “chemical maintenance” is environmental contamination. Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCP) enter the environment through many sources, the majority being from human excretions, animal feed lots, rainwater runoff, and direct surface water contact through recreation and bathing. Scientists are now researching the dangers these compounds are causing. Although pharmaceuticals and personal care products are used to treat disease, ease suffering, beautify, and prolong life, their usage and disposal should be reduced, or avoided because they are causing our aquifers and surface waters to become polluted, destroying aquatic environments, and poisoning agricultural soils.
Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCP) which have been discovered in the environment are innumerable and have an assorted range of chemical components. The most commonly found PPCP’s include contraceptives, antidepressants, antipsychotics, cardiac, blood pressure, antibiotics, anti-seizure, ibuprofen, pet meds, nicotine, synthetic musks and fragrances (EPA 2007 p.1). Over the counter medications, consumer chemicals, sun-screen agents, and pain relievers have increased substantially over the years. PharmPro Daily (2010) indicates prescription pharmaceuticals comprise a whopping 1.7 percent of gross national product (GDP) (www.pharmpro.com). According to Ruhoy and Kaye (2010) this translates to approximately 1.8 billion dollars per year on personal prescription medications (26-32). This figure does not include veterinary medications for farm animals. This yearly overabundance of prescription pharmaceuticals eventually end up in a community’s water supply and agricultural soils posing a hidden danger that negatively affects a larger unsuspecting population. This difficult issue is a clear case where the health benefit of a few adversely affects the health of the many. The average American over age 55 takes eight prescribed medications, some of which are to block the negative side effects of primary medications (Ruhoy and Kaye, p.26). Heberer (2002) indicates that the number of dangerous and toxic substances that enter the environment through multiple sources number in the tens of thousands (p.175-189). Expanding usage of medications, especially children’s anti-depressants and psychotropic drugs as well as illegal or “recreational” drugs add to the excessive supply of contaminants (Daughton and Jones-Lepp, p.11). These chemicals in combination with other environmental pollutants pose an exponential threat to the human body.
The majority of the PPCP contamination originates from individuals and hospitals. The volume of excreted chemicals also depends on the size of the community and the number of elderly residing in the community (Rodriguez-Mozaz & Weinberg p.1016). Although the elderly are not solely responsible for pharmaceutical contamination, they tend to be the largest target groups for pharmaceutical companies since many elderly have insurance plans that are subsidized by the federal government which guarantees a minimum payout for each medication. Pharmaceutical companies themselves are forced through legislation to observe stringent regulations concerning the release of compounds, however PPCP’s are released freely into the environment through human and domesticated animal excretions and represent the largest contributor of PPCP contamination (Daughton and Jones-Lepp p.10). The EPA has noted that once in aquifers and transported through the water table, few barriers prevent it from dispersing through a large geographical area (p.2). Contamination of large aquifers such as the Ogallala Aquifer spread pharmaceutical compounds over eight states which leaves few opportunities for smaller communities to have access to clean water. Contamination also inadvertently spreads through the use of human biosolid waste as fertilizers.
Septic tanks and sewage treatment facilities are the first line of failure in PPCP contamination. Septic systems bypass any form of treatment and liquid flows directly from the septic leach field into surrounding groundwater without any opportunity of degradation (EPA 2007 p.1). Flushing of unused medications has for years been the officially sanctioned method for disposal. This has caused the release of full therapeutic doses for each pill flushed as well as the excretion of non-metabolized therapeutic doses of medications. In both cases, PPCPs are released into sewer systems that overwhelm sewage treatment plants, many of which are technologically incapable of testing for chemical contaminants or lack the funding to upgrade existing systems (EPA 2007 p.2). Pharmaceutical rich water must then be released into nearby surface waters or groundwater aquifers due to the lack of suitable alternatives. It stands to reason that the larger the community, the greater the variety of PPCP that are excreted into the environment. Many of the parent compounds combine within the sewer system to create new compounds which are incapable of being identified (Daughton and Jones- Lepp p15). The EPA (2007) states that “excretion of biologically unused and unprocessed drugs depends on: ability of individual bodies to break down drugs (this ability depends on age, sex, health, and individual idiosyncrasies” (p.2).
Sewage treatment facilities are unable to detect or remove the thousands of chemical compounds that pass through their system, especially new or unrecognized compounds that form within the sewage system. Researchers are working quickly to assess the potential effects and impacts these chemicals are having on humans and the environment. However, very little information is available concerning adverse reactions in humans because of the as of yet unknown effects due to chemical bonding of parent compounds, creating new unknown compounds inside the sewage system(Daughton and Jones-Lepp p. 12). As pharmaceutical companies market new products, the list of unknown chemical compounds increases at a greater rate. This chemical cocktail poses the greatest threat to civilization due to their unknown properties. Researchers try to focus on identifying endocrine disrupting compounds; these particular pharmaceuticals have raise the most alarm in the scientific community due to their effects being irreversible and usually do not manifest their effects until long after the exposure has occurred. Pharmaceuticals have been “designed to activate at low doses, targeting specific biological and physiological systems” (Ruhoy & Kaye, p.28). Some of these chemicals biodegrade but they are still considered harmful because of chronic exposure due to the continual supply of untreated sewage effluent. There is a difficulty associated with long-term research since immediate health effects are difficult to pinpoint. The matter is further complicated reports Ruhoy & Kaye (2010) due to medications affecting humans differently at varying stages of development, especially fetus development (p28). This perpetual chronic exposure to multiple organic compounds tends to bioaccumulate and the effects on humans are unknown.(Daughton & Jones-Lepp, p14). This becomes especially troubling when behavioral issues are suspected to be linked to certain chemical compounds.
EPA (2007) data suggests that neighborhoods that utilize both septic tanks and wells are the most susceptible to contamination due to soil being incapable of filtering pharmaceuticals before inflowing with well water (p.1). Studies indicate that individuals are ingesting their neighbor’s unmetabolized medications at an alarming rate. A single neighbor can contaminate well water which can encompass an entire neighborhood. Straight piping of raw untreated sewage into the ground is common in undeveloped neighborhoods and contains the worst levels of contaminants since microbial degradation is limited. It is currently unclear due to the large number of pharmaceuticals currently in use how long local ground water will remain contaminated especially if subterranean water flow is slow or stagnant and does not dilute with other sources of water.
Surface waters are the most susceptible to PPCP contamination since human interaction and agricultural runoff are principal avenues of contamination. In addition, water treatment facilities continue to release treated water into nearby lakes which poses increased exposure to humans through recreation or domestic water intake. The Groundwater Foundation of Nebraska (1999) determined that 80% of their surface water streams were contaminated with some forms of pharmaceutical (p.1). This has led to the concern that many U.S. surface waters are contaminated with varying levels of unknown contamination. The situation has only gotten worse since the increased use of over the counter medications for humans and veterinary medications for livestock has increased substantially. Indicator species such as fish and other aquatic species have been studied to gauge the effects of PPCP in their environment since it has been shown that they display similar effects to pharmaceuticals as do humans (Corcoran, Winter, and Tyler 2010 p290). Aquatic species have chronic long-term exposure to PPCP since natural degradation of chemicals is offset by the continual replacement of chemicals due to agricultural runoff and wastewater discharge.
Bioaccumulation of persistent chemicals on wild fish populations have not yet been fully examined for the effects of drug mixing in their environment (Corcoran et al, 2010 p. 301). Canadian researchers have deliberately contaminated an otherwise pristine lake with low levels of a common birth control medication to examine its effect on flathead minnows and other aquatic species. This experiment was to replicate the average human waste contamination similar sized lakes suffer in the midst of populated areas. Within two years of the low dose injection, the population of flathead minnows disappeared (Kidd et al. 2007 p.8897). Similar results on other fish populations suffering from contamination of birth control chemicals related to human excretions indicate that fish populations experienced “intersex, histological changes in gonads, feminization of male fish, . . .[which] prevented them from reproducing” (Rodriguez and Weinberg 2010, p.1018). Many lakes and reservoirs across the Western United States are showing the similar results of fish feminization within the larger fish species. Studies that include the effects on mammals and birds around these environments have not yet been published.
Aquifers in the American Midwest and Western States are becoming more polluted with PPCPs. Treated wastewater from sewage treatment plants are increasingly being utilized to recharge depleted groundwater aquifers due to overuse from crop irrigation and human needs (USGS 2008). The Groundwater Foundation (1999) research indicates that drinking water from these water sources are currently lacking any standards for the presence and testing of PPCP (p.2). Water contamination is commonly measured at the discharge pipe of wastewater treatment plants; however, intake water sources for domestic water usage lack scrutiny since other alternate sources of water rarely exists. This becomes especially troubling in drought prone or arid areas where water is recycled several times and accumulation or loading of chemicals is compounded by passing through countless human cycles adding to chemical contamination. The EPA (2007) contends that contamination of pharmaceuticals within aquifers remain permanent and multiply in measure over time due to the lack of U.V. degradation or microbial breakdown (p.2). Reservoir water contamination multiplies according to the number of times a municipal reservoir is recharged. This leads to populations turning away from local utility water supply for drinking and instead turning to transported bottled water.
Contamination of agricultural soils is another developing field of study in which scientists are becoming increasingly concerned. Currently, little is known about the behavior of pharmaceuticals in soil (Xu, Wu, and Chang 2009 p.1299). Veterinary pharmaceuticals injected into livestock enter soils by direct contact through excretion flowing directly on the ground. According to Rodriguez-Mozaz and Weinberg (2010) many of the pharmaceuticals used on humans are also used in animal feed to increase the appearance of health among the stock, but unfortunately little research has been done to measure the levels of non-metabolized parent compounds within animal waste (p.1017). Irrigation and rainwater then wash the contaminants into groundwater or make their way into wetland systems (Fisher and Scott, 2008 p.1437).
An example noted by Oaks et al. (2004) of pharmaceuticals spreading throughout the environment is the veterinary medication Diclofenac which when used on livestock unwittingly caused a 95% reduction of the vulture population in India and Pakistan within a period of 3 years (p.631). This unforeseen result can also correlate with the diminishing of certain populations of wildlife within agricultural areas. PPCPs also enter agricultural soils through deliberate spreading of sewage treatment facilities sludge (human waste) as a fertilizer. Municipal biosolids used as fertilizer is a common practice throughout the world, including the U.S. Although these fertilizers are an available source of nitrogen, municipal biosolids are also heavily loaded with PPCP’s (Lapen et al. 2008 p.50). Another avenue of PPCP contamination in soil is irrigation using wastewater for agricultural and landscaping purposes. Many parts of the U.S. such as California, Florida, Colorado, and Arizona are heavily dependent on recycled wastewater and use it extensively for irrigation (Xu, Wu, and Chang, 2009 p.1299). According to Xu, Wu, and Chang (2009)The long-term effects of chemical buildup by utilizing wastewater is unclear, however there is a variance in effects since some pharmaceuticals activate at certain pH levels and within specific environments and microbial action within soil can degrade the potency of pharmaceuticals, but as the level of chemicals increase, the effectiveness of microbial action decreases (p.1301). Crops growing in contaminated soil can uptake certain chemicals within the developing plants. Lab tests on soybean plants indicate that both wastewater and biosolid fertilizer are avenues for uptake into the beans (Chenxi, Spongberg, Whitter, Min and Czajkowske 2010, p.6157). The amount of chemical uptake in crops varies between plants. Certain watery plants such as lettuce and melons have high uptake rates, whereas soy beans and tobacco uptake to a lesser degree. This ratio also varies depending on the degree of chemical loading in the soil.
Agricultural soils around the world have already become heavily loaded with pharmaceutical chemicals which contribute to the unintended uptake of these chemicals into the plants. However, a new danger lies on the horizon which adds to the already unsafe situation. The biotech industry in an effort to lower the cost of pharmaceutical production has genetically modified crops such as corn, soy, canola, tomatoes, rice, and bananas as well as other non edible crop plants, to produce within their cellular structure the chemicals needed to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial proteins (Asia Biotech, 2004. 1074). Molecular pharming or” Pharma Crops” have been classified into two groups; Plant Made Pharmaceuticals (PMP’s) and Plant Made Industrial Proteins (PMIP’S) (Nature Biotechnology, 2007 p.166). Nature Biotechnology (2007)reports that farming of Pharma Crops in North Carolina has already been successful in securing the necessary permits required for the production of 335 acres of rice carrying the chemical loctoferrin or lysozyme (p167). Other PMP’s and PMIP’s are currently in production. Local farmers have already voiced concerns over possible cross-pollination with other Genetically Modified and Organic crops as well as inadvertent mixing of Pharma Crops seeds with other similar agricultural seeds. Other concerns include, non commercial portions of the plant products being composted back into the ground causing a buildup of target chemicals in the soil. The dangers imposed by possible runaway biotech farming compounded with poor soil content poses to much of a threat to an already stressed ecosystem.
Many environmental dangers lurk in the unseen world of molecular chemistry. For decades the health and mental well-being of Americans has been mysteriously deteriorating at a rapid pace. The recent discovery of large quantities of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in drinking water and agricultural soils is among the many veiled avenues for human decline. Society must address this urgent issue and take appropriate action to mitigate this hazardous situation. The first step in this difficult process should be to maintain individual health by eating a healthy diet and proper cardiovascular exercise followed by using natural forms of health sustaining substances. Next, reducing or selectively using man-made potent chemical compounds only when absolutely necessary with an open return policy of unused medications. Finally, proper disposal techniques and lower doses based on body weight and metabolic rate should be employed. With intelligent solutions we can turn this disaster around for a cleaner, healthier future.
Asia Bioech. (2004). USDA Tightened Pharma Crop Farming Legislation. Nature Vol.8 p.1074 Retrieved from http://www.asiabiotech.com
Chenxi, W,. Spongberg, A., Witter, J,. Min, F., & Czajkowski, K. (2010). Uptake of pharmaceutical and personal care products by soybean plants from soils applied with biosolids and imgated with contaminated water. Environmental Science and Technology, 44, 16, 6157-6161. Doi:10.1021/es1011115
Corcoran, J., Winter, M.J., & Tyler, C.R. (2010). Pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment: A critical review of the evidence for health effects in fish. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 40, 4, 287-304. Doi:10.3109/10408440903373590
Daughton, C.G., & Jones-Lepp, T.L. (2001). Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment. Washington, DC: Oxford University Press.
EPA, US. (2007). Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). Basic information: Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/pppc/basic2.html
Fisher, P.M.J., & Scott, R. (2008). Evaluating and controlling pharmaceutical emissions from dairy farms: a critical first step in developing a preventative management approach. Journal of Cleaner Production, 16, 14, 1437-1446. Doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2008.04.02
The Goundwater Foundation, (1999) Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products: An Emerging Issue. Loncoln, Nebraska 68516. Retrieved from http:// www.groundwater.org
Heberer, T, (2002). Tracking persistent pharmaceutical residues from municipal sewage to drinking water. Journal of Hydrology, V.266, p.175-189.
Kidd, K.A., Blanchfield, P., Mills, K., Palace, V., Evans, R., & Lazorchak, J, (2007). Collapse of a fish population after exposure to a synthetic estrogen. Proc National Academic Sciences, USA. 104:8897-8901. Doi: 101021/104084498335671.
Lapen, D.R., Topp, E., Metcalfe,C.D., Li, H., Edwards, M., Gottschall, N., Bolton, P., . . . & Beck, A. (2008). Pharmaceutical and personal care products in tile drainage following land application of municipal biosolids. Science of the Total Environment, 399, 1-3, 50-65. Doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2008.02.025
Nature Biotechnology. (2007). The fit between organic and pharma corps in North Carolina. Nature Publishing Group. Vol. 25 p.166-167. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/naturebiotechnology
Oaks, J.L., Gilbert, M., Virani, M.Z., Watson, R.T., Meteyer, C.U., & Rideout, B.A. (2004) Diclofenac residues as the cause of vulture population decline in Pakistan. Nature 427:630-633
PharmPro Daily. (2010, October). GDP for 3rd quarter. Stock Market Report. Retrieved from http://www.pharmpro.com/News/feeds /2010/10/ stock futures-slide- before-3rd quarter-gap-report/
Rodriguez-Mozaz, S., & Weinberg, H.S. (2010). Meeting Report: Pharmaceuticals in water- An interdisciplinary approach to a Public Health challenge. Health Perspect, 118, 1016-1020. Doi:10.1289/ehp.0901532
Ruhoy, I.S., & Kaye, L.W. (2010). Pharmaceuticals in the Water: Relevance to Older Adults. Generations- Journal of the American Society on Aging, Vol.33 No4, 26-32
USGS. (2008). Water-quality data for pharmaceuticals and other organic wastewater contaminants in ground water and untreated drinking water sources in the United States. Open-File Report 2008, U.S. Geological Survey, Reston Virginia. http:// pubs.usgs.gov.of.2008/1293/pdf/ofr2008-1293.pdf
Xu, I., Wu, L., & Chang, A.C. (2009). Degradation and absorption of selected pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in agricultural soils. Chemosphere, 77, 10, 1299-1305. Doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2009.09.063
Filed under: Fall 2010, Pollution, Research Project | Leave a Comment »