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Pharmaceutical Chemicals Found in Every Stream Sampled in USGS Study

By Eric Chaney
Jun 1 2016

Scientist with the USGS collected samples from streams in several states to test for pollution. (Peter Van Metre/USGS)

Our waterways are filled with traces of drugs, says a new study conducted by the USGS.

A team of researchers, led by hydrologist Paul Bradley, recently collected water samples from 59 small streams in the Southeast from Virginia to Georgia, which were analyzed for 108 pharmaceuticals and degradates.

All 59 streams tested positive for at least one of compounds and the overall average was six different compounds per stream.

“Pharmaceutical contaminants are growing aquatic-health concerns and largely attributed to wastewater treatment facility discharges,” the study says. But only 17 of the 59 streams have any reported wastewater discharges.

“The widespread occurrence of pharmaceuticals in these small streams irrespective of wastewater discharges indicates the need for approaches for preventing pharmaceutical contamination that extend beyond effluent treatment,” said Bradley, in a USGS release. “Sources of pharmaceuticals to these small streams likely include aging sewer infrastructure and leakage from septic systems.”

The drug compounds ranged from common pain killers and antihistamines to medicines used to treat diabetes and seizures.

Metformin, a medicine used to treat Type II diabetes, was found in 89 percent of all sample taken, while acetaminophen, the active ingredient in pains killers such as Tylenol was detected in 36 percent of all samples. Nicotine-related compounds were found in 71 percent of samples, while caffeine-related compounds were found in 49 percent.

None of the chemicals was detected in amounts that exceeded human health benchmarks, but they can cause “toxicity, endocrine disruption, immunomodulation, antimicrobial activity, antibiotic resistance selection, cytotoxicity and mutagenesis, and transgenerational effects throughout aquatic foodwebs,” the study says.

Antihistamines, for example, affect neurotransmitters for many aquatic insects. And metformin, nearly ubiquitous in the streams studied, can affect the reproductive health of fish.

These findings, the study says, not only demonstrate a critical need for broad-scale approaches to in-stream pharmaceutical contaminant prevention, but also speak to making advances in health awareness among humans.

“Increased emphasis on diabetes prevention simultaneously addresses the costs of diabetes in humans and the presence and effects of anti-diabetic drugs in aquatic ecosystems.”