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The Effect of Medications on the Environment

Do the medications and supplements that humans give/take influence much more than we expect? 

When humans decide, generally under the advice of a professional, to take or give any substance directed to influence health, we generally assume that the substance taken will initiate a given biological function and break down to an inert bi-product.  Evidence is suggesting that certain substances, such as medications, that we ourselves take or give to our pets is now actually inducing a negative impact on our surrounding environment.  Even more concerning is that these residual bi-products or actual unmetabolized compound(s) will actually be excreted through other excretory processes, such as sweat.  Approximately 30%-60% of all prescribed medications are excreted into the sewage system and the conventional sewage treatment technologies of today may not be effective at removing all these questionable residues. Some studies have indicated that some of these treatment technologies actually increase the bioactivity of many pharmaceutical residues imparted into the waste system. Although the use of modern water treatment technologies shows promising results, certain pharmaceuticals have shown to be particularly recalcitrant to the ozone and oxidative techniques used in these facilities. 

Individuals (particularly infants and children and pets) displaying immune compromised or hypersensitive conditions to any of the compounds taken by another individual could suffer from negative responses merely by contact. 

Even many of the supplements we take end up basically unchanged in the waste and sewage systems. Fortunately, many of these supplements are biologically safe (such as the earth metals calcium and magnesium) and do not pose much deleterious effects on the environment. However, not all supplemental by-products are so favorable to the environment.   Iron and copper in excessively high amounts and some of the preformed components which are being touted as supplemental nutrients, are examples. 

From the use of pharmaceuticals, end metabolites from medications have been detected in the environmental contamination load.  We are now able to detect with more accuracy, the micro amounts of pharmaceutical drug residues found in the water supply. Fortunately, the current levels of drug contaminants found in the water supply are low enough that it should not adversely affect adult humans in the short term.  Studies have not yet conclusively indicated their possible side effects on infants, but the potential is disturbing.  One of the more alarming contaminants being found are the metabolites of the statin drugs.  The impact of these drugs on the environment was first noted in Europe, when researchers were finding the component of statins; clofibric acid in the ground water. 

Of interest is the fact that in the year 2000, U.S. pharmaceutical retail sales were above 100 billion dollars annually. That’s half of the entire worldwide sales combined. Does this pertain to the U.S consuming more drugs per average or just a greater profit margin for the pharmaceutical companies? If the former, then the increasing contamination burden on the water supply domestically becomes apparent. 

Further evidence has shown that the current amount of pharmaceutical byproducts contaminating the water supply is still much lower than that of pesticides, however, the increasing amounts of pharmaceutical contaminants being detected each progressive year is the major concern. The U.S.Geological Service is currently conducting the first nationwide assessment of emerging contaminants within the ecological biosphere. In 1999, the U.S.G.S. conducted a study to detect the presence of pharmaceutical contaminants in surface and ground water. A few of the contaminants being monitored were anti-depressants, anti-biotics, statins and hormones. Specific levels of these were detected in 80% of streams and 93% of ground water. For those of you brave enough to keep abreast of the current findings, you can retrieve information at the U.S.G.S. website; 

As our use of pharmaceutical drugs increase, so to does their prevalence into the biological system. With this continued environmental loading, more resistant bacterial pathogens are being discovered due to their exposure to sub-lethal levels of anti-biotic residues. This in turn propagates new pathogens that become more resistant to the current medications generally used to treat them. 

Mankind appears to be creating a new environmental breeding ground for mutations. Another provoking thought is that these very medications in question which have such a negative impact on the environment are products we ingest on a daily basis, generally without question.  The pharmaceutical commercials which riddle the network channels liberally display the harmful effects on our system, yet we still take the drugs with optimistic prevalence. We have to give the human race credit for at least one thing; we’re diligent when we want to be. 

There are medications of tremendous value, life saving in fact, which we are fortunate to have at our disposal. But as with most things there are also very unreasonable ones as well. The discretion is up to the individual and the trust imparted in their doctors.  Please keep in mind that most every individual has the opportunity in today’s technological world to obtain information on the substances they are taking, rather it be prescribed or over the counter. 

The drugs you are taking may very well be affecting more than just you. Perhaps the term “second hand smoking” may now be applied as “second hand drug taking”. 

With the consequences being recognized by many regarding the negative factors of pharmaceutical by-products, many research facilities along with some pharmaceutical establishments are evaluating the safety of most non-prescriptive compounds, such as co-factors, herbs and transitional elements. Many of these can be prepared to induce an almost parallel health result compared to pharmaceutical drugs.  These substances generally biodegrade with more efficiency and have little, if any, negative impact on the biosphere. 

Perhaps it may be time to exercise more discrimination when using any substances for health, particularly if our choice may influence humans and pets in potentially harmful ways.    


By Kevin Meehan 


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