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Drug Pollution Creating Unexpected Problems

An investigation is to be launched in Britain and the United States amid new fears that scores of toxic drugs and pharmaceuticals are surviving the human digestive system, passing through sewerage works and ending up in rivers and the sea. John Howard reports.

Scientists in Europe have discovered that increasing numbers of complex drugs - including heart medication, anti-depressants, anti-epileptics, anti-cancer chemicals, cholestrol-lowering medicines, sex hormones, antibiotics. hormone replacements, aspirin, vitamins and ibuprofens - are surviving the human digestive system and polluting the sea and rivers, threatening sea-life and getting into drinking water.

Pharmaceutical companies are now being given until the end of the year to supply data on their drugs to environmental protection agencies so their impact can be researched.

Dr Thomas Ternes, of Germany's Institute for Water Research, carried out the latest sampling at sewerage works and found 36 different drugs, plus five other compounds that had been metabolised from them before they left the patient.

Scientists are now blaming the drug pollution for some of the widespread and until now unexplained mass deaths of tiny aquatic organisms. Some drugs, especially anti-depressants, have now been found to alter sperm levels and spawning patterns in aquatic life.

Musks and chemicals used in perfumes, and compounds from suntan lotions have also been found accumulated in fish.

Each year in Britain, for example, about 600 million prescription medicines are dispensed.

Most of the research on environmental effects on drugs in the rivers and sea has been done in Germany and Denmark; little has been done on Britain.

However, later this month at a world congress of scientists to be held at Brighton in the UK, the Environment Agency will lay down the timetable for an investigation into the effects of the drugs which are not currently routinely monitored.

A conference to be held in America next month will also attempt to quantify the problem for the first time.

"Just about everything that people put into their mouth eventually gets into the water," said Dr Christian Daughton, chief of environmental chemistry for the US Environmentla Protection Agency.

"Serotonin, for example, has been used to induce spawning in molluscs. Many anti-depresants which are ending up in rivers through human waste are designed to interfere with serotonin production in humans and seem to affect spawning," he said.

"Pharmaceuticals are perhaps one of the reasons for unexplained mass die-offs in some organisms that we see from time to time," Dr Daughton said.


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