Government scientists say that they have detected significantly elevated levels of pharmaceutical residues in the water downstream from treatment facilities in charge of disposing waste from drug manufacturers.
Preliminary results from two important federal studies compared the wastewater flowing from sewage plants that handle waste from drug companies and compared them with others that do not. The studies examined only a handful of the 1,886 U.S. drug manufacturing plants recorded by the 2006 Census report.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s report, some of the samples contained a range of pharmaceuticals, from over-the-counter medications to opiates, barbiturates and tranquilizers; some of them at significantly higher concentrations than what were found at other plants.
At one location, the muscle relaxer metaxalone was found in treated waste-water at a concentration several hundred times higher than the concentration used by drug regulators to examine a drug’s impact on the environment.
Because of privacy agreements, the specific treatment facilities were not listed by name.
Herb Buxton, a researcher with the USGS and co-chair of the federal task force on pharmaceuticals and the environment, spoke of the significance of double-checking the environmental safety claims of drug companies.
“It’s critical that those types of assumptions are confirmed through real testing,” said Buxton.
In a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of a municipal wastewater treatment facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., the city’s public service director provided evidence that showed elevated levels of the antibiotic lincomycin entering the plant. The facility services a large production factory for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., which was producing the antibiotic around the time of the tests.
“There’s some product going down the drain,” explained Merchant plainly.
While the vast majority of the lincomycin was properly removed from the water during treatment, traces of it did remain. A separate 2008 study showed that the antibiotic can combine with small concentrations of other drugs to stimulate the production of cancer cells in both humans and fish.
Other experiments have showed that lincomycin can cause genetic mutations in fish, bacteria, algae and other aquatic microbes common to streams and rivers.
Francesco Pomati, a biologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has expressed extreme concern about the levels of these drugs found in drinking water. He and his colleagues at the university have cautioned that repeated exposure to this cocktail of drugs ““ even in minute quantities ““ could be “a potential hazard for particular human conditions, such as pregnancy or infancy.”
Pfizer spokesman Rick Chambers has assured that “compliance with all environmental, health and safety laws is imperative to our business operations worldwide.”
The two U.S. studies added to a slew of similar research projects carried out in Asia and Europe recently that have connected pharmaceutical production facilities to dangerous levels of drugs in water supplies. Other drugs detected include the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole, the pain reliever diclofenac, the anticonvulsant carbamazepine, as well as a range of milder medications like aspirin, antihistamines and female sex hormones.
Recent studies in India have shown that a waste water plant that services dozens of multinational drug companies had been releasing as much as 100 pounds of the antibiotic ciproflacin a day into local rivers through supposedly treated water.
A Swiss study paid for by the pharmaceutical giant Roche found that some 0.2 percent of its active ingredients managed to escape during the production process. Such a small number may not sound like much until it is multiplied by the thousands of drug production plants around the world, many of which likely have a much higher loss rate than that reported by Roche.
This has many experts in the U.S. questioning their own production standards.
“Is it as bad in the U.S. as it is in India? Probably not. But it does make me think we should test,” says former EPA enforcement officer Kyla Bennett, who is now pursuing a career as an ecologist and environmental attorney.
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