Who needs prescriptions when we have pharmaceutical waste in our fish?
All salmon is heart-healthy because it’s loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, but you can also get a dose of Lipitor, the cholesterol-lowering prescription drug, which is found in the flesh of wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest. You might be treating allergies, anxiety, menstrual cramps, and dozens more ailments with the substances contained in a chinook netted in the Puget Sound, whose waters are a cocktail of 81 over-the-counter, prescription, and illegal drugs.
We flush the drugs out of our bodies, through the sewers, and into fish habitats.
We’re a nation of pill poppers. More than half of all Americans are currently taking a prescription drug and 20% of us take three or more different prescriptions daily. Between 30-90% of all those drugs aren’t absorbed and are excreted out through urine, but wastewater treatment plants aren’t often designed to catch them. A 30-state study performed by the U.S. Geological Survey and the EPA found pharmaceuticals in 80% of the ‘clean’ water samples.
Pharmaceutical residue isn’t like other pollutants.
Modern pharmaceuticals are designed to be biologically active even at very low concentrations. Fish and marine animals that swim in contaminated waters are subject to very low level exposure. The drugs don’t have the acute toxicity of oil spills and pesticides, but they’re absorbed into the creatures’ systems where they can have more subtle impact over time.
Exposure to human hormones alters the gender identities of fish.
There are feminized fish and frogs— these are egg-producing males with ovaries that are regularly found in waters laced with the synthetic estrogen found in birth control pills and menopause treatments. Spawning and reproduction are interrupted, and these inter-sex creatures have led to the collapse of wild fish populations everywhere from the Potomac River to the coast of Spain.
Fish also have very human responses to psychiatric drugs.
Residue from the widespread human use of mood-altering medications is changing fish behavior. A shy fish becomes bolder on anti-anxiety drugs, less likely to stay within the safety of the group and more likely to be eaten by a predator. An anti-depressant like Xanax can make fish eat faster, and Prozac can make them sluggish and anti-social.
Drug-induced changes in fish behavior can lead to unexpected ecological consequences as they alter population sizes and the balance and diversity of species in waterways. The drugs are also working their way up the food chain as larger fish and other marine creatures like osprey and otter feed on the drug-exposed species.
We’ve understood the problem for 20 or so years, and we’ve watched it get worse.
Sewage treatment plants still aren’t required to remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater before discharging it into open water. Meanwhile, the massive baby boomer generation is taking a deep dive into prescription drugs to fight age-related ailments like heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes, creating unheard of levels of pharmaceutical pollution. Hydrologists are predicting even greater toxicity as global warming brings droughts and declining water levels, further concentrating the pollution in freshwater bodies.
Our dependence on pharmaceuticals isn’t likely to wane.
Nor is the need for clean, fresh water.