- An investigation is to be launched into the environmental
effects of pharmaceuticals amid new fears that tons of anti- depressants
and scores of other toxic drugs are polluting rivers, threatening fish
life and getting into drinking water.
- Pharmaceutical companies are being given until the end
of the year to supply data on their drugs to the Environment Agency so
their impact can be researched.
- Scientists in Europe have discovered that increasing
numbers of complex drugs - including heart medication, anti-depressants,
anti-epileptics, anti-cancer chemicals, cholesterol-lowering medicines,
sex hormones, antibiotics, hormone replacement, aspirin, vitamins and ibuprofen
- are surviving the human digestive system, passing through sewage works
and entering rivers and the sea.
- Dr Thomas Ternes, of Germany's Institute for Water Research,
carried out sampling at one sewage works outfall and found 36 different
drugs, plus five other compounds that had been metabolised from them before
they left the patient.
- Scientists are 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 also been found to alter
sperm levels and spawning patterns in aquatic life. Musks and chemicals
used in perfumes, and compounds from suntan lotion, have been found to
have accumulated in fish.
- Each year in Britain about 600m prescription drugs and
medicines are dispensed.
- Most of the research on environmental effects on drugs
in rivers has been done in Germany and Denmark; little has been carried
out in Britain.
- However, later this month at a world congress of scientists
in Brighton, the Environment Agency will lay down the timetable for an
investigation into the effects of the drugs.
- "We have commissioned a review, which is due to
be completed within the next two weeks. There is limited data in Britain
about this issue and we don't routinely monitor," said Dr Steve Killeen,
head of chemistry at the agency.
- "The report will make a series of recommendations,
including getting the pharmaceutical industry to provide us with better
information by the end of the year. If we find that levels of drugs are
causing environmental damage, regulations are an option open to us."
- Stricter regulations could involve the need for more
complex sewage works to screen out the chemical compounds.
- A conference to be held in America next month will also
attempt to quantify the problem for the first time.
- "Just about everything people put into their mouth
eventually gets into the water," said Dr Christian Daughton, chief
of environmental chemistry for the US Environmental Protection Agency.
- "Serotonin, for example, has been used to induce
spawning in molluscs. Many anti-depressants which are ending up in
- rivers are designed to interfere with serotonin production
in humans and may affect spawning," he said.
- "Pharmaceuticals are perhaps also one of the reasons
for unexplained mass die-offs in some organisms that we see from time to
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