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Testing finds human anti-anxiety, birth control drugs in G. Lakes fish stock

LAKE HURON—Karen Kidd, the Jarislowky Chair in Environment and Health at McMaster University and a water pollution researcher at McMaster University, highlights the alarming impact of medications like anti-anxiety drugs and birth control pills on wildlife. These drugs, beneficial to humans, are disrupting the behaviour and reproduction of aquatic life. 

The problem originates from the incomplete breakdown of pharmaceuticals, which end up in wastewater systems and ultimately contaminate natural waterways. Dr. Kidd stresses the need for pharmaceuticals to be more biodegradable, as current wastewater treatments are unable to effectively filter out all drug compounds.

The effects of these drugs on wildlife are widespread and severe. For instance, anti-anxiety medications cause smaller fish to become more daring, leaving their protective groups and making them easy targets for predators. Meanwhile, birth control pills are leading to the feminization of male fathead minnows, impacting their population. Surprisingly, even caffeine has been detected as a common water contaminant in various tests.

Dr. Kidd emphasizes the ubiquitous nature of pharmaceutical contamination, affecting water bodies from rural areas to urban centers across continents. She also points out that nearly half of all municipal wastewater globally is inadequately treated, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries.

Liam Campbell of 㽶Ƶ Streams spoke with The Expositor, acknowledging that 㽶Ƶ isn’t necessarily exempt from these effects. “Many people may think that we are exempt or protected from the effects of pharmaceuticals making their way into the water around and on 㽶Ƶ Island because we have a relatively low population density. However, if you consider the fact that approximately three million people live in the Lake Huron watershed it’s easy to see that this is a very real issue that we are also facing on 㽶Ƶ.”

“As far as inland lakes go, they too are potentially at risk due to the fact that even places that aren’t on town water and sewer have septic systems that eventually filter into the lakes. On top of that there are many old, failing or illegally installed septic tanks that don’t filter out contaminants the way that they should. While there haven’t been any studies conducted on the presence or effects of pharmaceuticals in the waters and organisms on and around 㽶Ƶ Island, we surely are experiencing similar issues and consequences of drugs made for humans that don’t take into consideration the local environment.” 

Juan José Alava, from the University of British Columbia, notes that fish are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pharmaceuticals due to the direct entry of drugs through their gills. Once in the bloodstream, these chemicals disrupt the physiology and reproductive systems of aquatic life.

Dr. Kidd and her colleagues advocate for a proactive approach, urging the pharmaceutical industry to develop drugs that naturally biodegrade, minimizing their ecological footprint. They cite fluoroquinolone antibiotics as an example of progress in this direction.

Furthermore, Dr. Kidd supports the “polluter pays” principle of the European Union, which makes pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies accountable for part of the cleanup costs. This policy aims to encourage the production of environmentally friendly products.

Mr. Alava stresses that the development of eco-friendly drugs should be complemented by enhancements to wastewater treatment facilities. For example, the construction of Metro Vancouver’s new $3.86 billion wastewater treatment plant reflects ongoing efforts to replace outdated systems that only filter physical waste.

Individuals can also contribute to this cause by responsibly disposing of unused prescriptions at pharmacies rather than flushing them or throwing them in the trash. Mr. Alava emphasizes the collective impact of personal actions, industry innovation, and political will in shaping a sustainable future.

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