At the crossroads of modern medicine, pharmacology, and mass production is the now ubiquitous pharmaceutical drug. Whereas ill patients were once advised to take arbitrary amounts of home remedies or primitive medications, they are now prescribed perfected quantities of powerful chemicals. From painkillers to birth control, pharmaceutical drugs are used extensively to treat medical patients, pets, and agricultural livestock. What is not widely discussed, however, is that pharmaceutical drugs are released into the environment via waste after they are used, wreaking havoc on living beings and entire ecosystems. Here are ten shocking facts about how pharmaceutical drugs destroy the environment and human health.
Beautiful Contaminated Waters
Pharmaceuticals drugs easily find their way into water sources. Modern water treatment facilities are now highly effective at removing solid wastes and bacteria from waste water, but they are often unable to rid it of pharmaceutical chemicals. As a result, bodies of water in the environment that receive recirculated waste water accumulate large quantities of foreign chemicals and particles. A study conducted by the United States Geological Survey found that pharmaceutical drugs had made their way into eighty percent of surveyed waterways and rivers. Because most communities rely on local waterways for their water supply, drinking water also contains trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs. Although scientists consider the quantity of pharmaceutical drugs in community water supplies to be harmless, these substances are still present.
The Fish Are Way Too Happy
Antidepressants make up a large portion of the pharmaceutical drugs that are released into the environment. When researchers tested the effects of exposure to fluoxetine, a key component of a commonly prescribed antidepressant, on marine wildlife, they found that these animals became far less careful about swimming out into well-lit open areas. This reckless behaviour poses a threat to wild shrimp populations. With their fears inhibited, shrimp (and other marine life) could be at risk of collapsing because they are ignoring their survival instincts. When a major component of an ecosystem, such as shrimp, is in danger, the entire food chain can be adversely affected by the sudden collapse of one link. A shrinking shrimp population could cause the population of another species to skyrocket, throwing the entire ecosystem out of balance.
Angry And Relentless Aquatic Life
Research on the effects of antidepressant exposure on crayfish and cuttlefish has shown that these species could become relentless and aggressive when living in pharmaceutically polluted waters. Crayfish exposed to antidepressants were shown to fight for far longer than crayfish in the control group did. They refused to yield and were more likely to die as a result. Cuttlefish in a control group, which were not exposed to antidepressants, gave up relatively quickly when trying to retrieve a snack that was encapsulated in glass. In comparison, cuttlefish exposed to antidepressants refused to stop trying despite the futility of their efforts.
Ruining Entire Marine Ecosystems
Zooplankton is a group of primarily microscopic organisms that feed on the algae of the world’s bodies of water. They are the first in a long line of animals in the ecosystems of oceans and lakes. Without them, ecosystems could easily collapse. Because of their importance, any risk to zooplankton populations is a considerable concern. Unfortunately, science shows that zooplankton populations can be almost entirely killed off by exposure to combinations of common drugs. Research zooplankton populations that were exposed to a combination of cholesterol drugs and antibiotics were reduced to a tenth of their former size, and even the remaining ten percent were mostly female and highly deformed. Exposure to just one of these drugs did not have substantial effects on the zooplankton. However, because real populations would likely be exposed to several drugs, the well-being of large ecosystems may be threatened.
Birth Control Can Make Fish Female
Birth control pills have changed the world forever in ways that were never thought to be possible. What many people do not realize, however, is the impact these drugs can have on fish and other marine life. The addition of large quantities of foreign estrogen and progestin to the environment exposes marine wildlife to unnaturally high concentrations of these substances. Researchers found that in a test lake with estrogen- and progestin-rich waters, male fathead minnows began to develop and carry eggs as if they were female. The minnow population of almost all female fish was essentially destroyed by the severe lack of male counterparts, resulting in a dramatic drop in trout populations that relied on the minnows for food.
Farmers around the world use human waste and wastewater to fertilize and irrigate crops. This is a problem because of the pharmaceuticals that are released into the environment through human waste and the waste of pharmaceutically treated livestock. Large quantities of drugs that are washed away into sewage treatment seep into the soil. The depth they reach is important because as rain and irrigation waters run over the soil and sink in, they can take these chemicals with them into the water table. As a result, the water table used for drinking water can become contaminated. These chemicals can also have a variety of effects on plant growth.
The Plants Are High
Research into the long-term effects of pharmaceutical exposure on plants and animals is still new. Scientists have found, however, that plant and crop growth can be affected in a variety of ways following exposure to chemicals in pharmaceutical drugs. For example, research on the effects of popular drugs, such as ibuprofen and diclofenac (painkillers and anti-inflammatory agents), suggests that plants can be noticeably slowed, stunted, and altered as they grow when exposed to these drugs. The impact of the drugs on root growth may be minimal. However, over generations, the slowed growth of large numbers of plants in entire ecosystems could have a large unbalancing effect.
Three Vulture Species That Nearly Went Extinct
In the 1990s, cattle in South East Asia were often treated for fevers and inflammation with diclofenac. Although exposure to trace amounts of diclofenac in meat is harmless to humans, it can have deadly effects on animals. When researchers examined the dwindling vulture populations in the area, they found that the birds had experienced catastrophic kidney failure from diclofenac exposure. Vultures inhabit an essential part of the ecosystem for other species, including humans. Without vultures, other scavengers, such as rats and wolves, flourish. Although wolves seem like the only obvious physical threat to humans among these animals, rats are known carriers of deadly human diseases, including bubonic plague. As a result, using pharmaceutical drugs on cattle to enhance meat production can indirectly cause substantial harm to humans. It is all too ironic that an adverse effect of modern medicine can be the spread of pestilence.
Contraceptives Linked To Prostate Cancer
Although no direct causal link has been discovered, Canadian researchers have found statistical correlations between use of oral contraceptives in women and rates of prostate cancer in men. Scientists believe that low levels of estrogen that are released into the environment from contraceptives may account for this relationship. However, they do not yet understand how this could cause higher rates of prostate cancer. The researchers involved only recently published their findings and recommend that scientists conduct further studies to better understand why rates of contraceptive use and prostate cancer are so closely related.
One of the most concerning effects of worldwide pharmaceutical drug use is frequent exposure to antibiotics. Whether it occurs intentionally in the form of medical treatment or unintentionally through contact via food or water supplies, exposure to antibiotics leads bacteria to become increasingly resistant to them. As a result, 'superbugs' or ‘superviruses’ have developed, and they are resistant to many or all usable antibiotics. Human reliance on antibiotics is directly cultivating bacterial strains that are resistant to them, and because of it, essentially untreatable. Instead of using antibiotics, there is an urgent need to invent or discover new methods of treating diseases. It is possible that medical professionals will need to turn to past remedies for common diseases in the hope that when the bacteria inevitably develop a resistance to these more primitive treatments, they will have lost their ability to survive the power of antibiotics.