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A Growing Concern: Prescription Drugs in the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are home to one fourth of the world’s surface fresh water and provide drinking water to over 40 million people in eight states and two Canadian provinces. They are an undeniably precious water resource and if harmed or altered, there could be devastating effects to the environment, economy and people’s health.

That’s why recent studies and new research out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are troubling. These reports have revealed that pharmaceuticals are indeed present in the Great Lakes and highlight the urgent need for long-term health and environmental studies to be conducted.

Research Behind Drinking Water Concerns

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studied sewage outfalls from Milwaukee and water and sediments in Lake Michigan up to two miles from the outfalls. What they discovered is that prescription drugs are not just present, but remaining in relatively high concentrations instead of being diluted, as many had previously thought was the case.

“In a body of water like the Great Lakes, you’d expect dilution would kick in and decrease concentrations, and that was not the case here,” said Dana Kolpin, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist based in Iowa.

Because of the higher-than-normal concentrations of pharmaceuticals in this particular area and their ability to travel, Rebecca Klaper, a senior author of the study, has said that there could be “some serious near-short impacts,” reports Environmental Health News. What’s more, it leaves aquatic life completely exposed.

A total of 27 chemicals were found in Lake Michigan that are used in both pharmaceuticals and personal care products. The four that turned up most often included: metformin, an anti-diabetic drug, sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic, and tricolsan, an antibacterial and antifungal compound found in soaps, toothpastes and other personal care products. According to Environmental Health News, of these chemicals, triclosan has received the most research attention and has been proven to be acutely toxic to algae and act as a hormone disruptor in fish.

14 of the chemicals were found to be of “medium or high ecological risk,” according to the study’s researchers.

“You’re not going to see fish die-offs [from pharmaceuticals], but subtle changes in how the fish eat and socialize that can have a big impact down the road,” said Kolpin, who was not a study participate. “With behavior changes and endocrine disruption, reproduction and survival problems may not rear their ugly head for generations.”

A study conducted by the Alliance for the Great Lakes in 2010 uncovered similar findings. Cotinine, a nicotine byproduct, and gemfibozil, a cholesterol-modifying drug, were found among others in Lake Michigan water, according to Lake Scientist.

The chemical levels in the water were fairly low though, too low to become urgent health treats, the organization reported. Yet, researchers were and still are unsure how even these low amounts and chemical combinations may affect people and the environment in the future, which is the real, underlying problem with prescription drugs and chemicals in the Great Lakes and any water body.

Another Alliance for the Great Lakes study from 2012 revealed that six of 20 “priority” chemicals, or emerging contaminants, including flame retardants and a cholesterol-lowering drug were discovered in Lake Michigan, reported Great Lakes Echo.

Increased Pharmaceutical Use Means More Chemicals in Our Water

With pharmaceutical use on the rise—over 4.02 billion prescriptions were written in 2011, up from 3.99 billion in 2010—more prescription drugs and chemical compounds are projected to enter the Great Lakes and other waterways and could stay there longer than any of us expect. For instance, the “turn over” or residence time (the amount of time water remains in a particular water body) for Lake Michigan is 99 years and amounts to nearly 191 years for Lake Superior.

What does this mean exactly? Well, it highlights that chemicals are settling into lake waters for much longer than they probably should. Low-level but consistent exposure to chemicals may prove to be problematic but since there have been no long-term health or environmental effect studies done on pharmaceutical and chemical-laced waters, scientists cannot yet determine how any of us, wildlife included, will be affected.

Chemicals from prescription drugs and personal care products arrive into waterways mainly from two sources: (1) human excretion, and (2) what we pour down our sink drains or wash off our bodies (including soap, shampoo and makeup).

“People should reconsider the notion that the Great Lakes are so large that this stuff cannot hurt us,” said Olga Lyandres, a research manager with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “The stuff you excrete and wash down the drain ends up in the same bodies of water that you drink out of.”

These chemicals are not just in the Great Lakes. In 2008, U.S. Geological Survey scientists sampled 74 waterways in 25 states and found 53 had one or more of three dozen pharmaceuticals present.

Wastewater Treatment Plants Try Their Best

Unfortunately, many of our wastewater treatment plants are just not designed to remove these sorts as chemicals.

“At the time wastewater treatment plants were developed, these compounds were just not an issue,” said Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

New methods of removal are being developed and put to use, including membranes, lagoons and activated sludge, but they cannot yet ensure that 100% of chemicals are removed.

Bottled Water Still Not the Right Choice

Just because there may be some levels of prescription drugs and personal care product chemicals in our drinking water doesn’t mean we should run to the store and stock up on bottled water. Tap is still by far the better choice as bottled water too has been detected to contain chemicals and is associated with many other problems.

Let us explain:

  • Around 40 percent of all bottled water is taken directly from the tap anyway.
  • About one-third of bottled water tested in a Natural Resource Defense Council study contained levels of contamination from synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for bottled water safety but it exempts water that is packaged and sold within the state, amounting to around 60 to 70 percent of all bottled water meaning that most is actually not regulated, according to the same study.
  • Oil use per plastic bottle is tremendous. Look at one water bottle and imagine it filled up with oil. That’s around how much oil is used to make just one bottle. Overall, 1.5 million barrels of oil is used to manufacture plastic bottles every year which is enough to power 100,000 cars.
  • Non-biodegradable plastic bottles are filling up our landfills–86% never reach the recycling bin.
  • Tap water is far cheaper, at about a penny a gallon, versus bottled water that costs up to $10 a gallon.

As you can see, bottled water is an issue within itself and should not be sought out as a solution to the drinking water problem. Other steps can be taken to ensure that drinking water is restored to its former glory.

What Can and Should be Done

Researchers of all studies mentioned here highly suggest that more effort be put into the development of new technologies and systems to counter the presence of chemicals in waterways. They also hope for long-term health and environmental studies to be conducted as well as tests from the FDA.

While we wait for new technologies, studies and government intervention, we can attempt to combat this issue at home. We can:

  • Make sure to safely throw away all medications and chemicals (no flushing them down the toilet) or deliver them to a disposal center.
  • Ask the EPA (202-564-4700) to fast-track screening for chemicals that pose a threat to our drinking water.
  • Purchase personal care products that contain little to no chemicals and are biodegradable. Find product picks for natural soaps and shampoos here, here, here and here and healthier makeup options right here.
  • Urge your local and state governments as well as our federal government to safeguard water from other potential threats including fracking, industry farming waste and fertilizer and pesticide residues to reduce overall water pollution.

To find out more about pharmaceuticals in the Great Lakes, please visit:

Image Source: John Menard/Flickr