Richard Wolfson, PhD
"Canadian cities discharge over a trillion litres per year of untreated sewage into surface waters and the ocean, almost all of which contains drug residues," said Dr Warren Bell in his presentation at Ecosummit 2000
"Canadian cities discharge over a trillion litres per year of untreated sewage into surface waters and the ocean, almost all of which contains drug residues," said Dr Warren Bell in his presentation at Ecosummit 2000. "Residues from human and veterinary Pharmaceuticals and from personal care products form a large component of these contaminants."
Warren Bell, MD, CM, CCFP, is president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). During his talk in Ottawa, he spoke about the chemical residues from drugs and cosmetics, which work their way through the human body or sewage system and into the water supply.
Sewage effluents routinely contain antibiotic residues, and stream waters and wild animals routinely harbor multiple-antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The accumulated volumes of drugs released into the environment can approach that of agrochemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers. Yet, regulation over the dispersal of pharmaceuticals into the ecosystem is negligible. We know virtually nothing about the cumulative effects of recurrent, low-level, multiple-agent exposures of these drug residues. However, this kind of exposure occurs every day in the natural aquatic environment and increasingly in our own bodies.
"The few things that we do know about the effects of these drugs on aquatic life are especially disturbing," said Dr Bell.
For instance, the widely used cardiac drug verapamil, the psychiatric drug Stelazine, the cardiac rhythm altering drugs quinidine and amiodarone, and the anti-rejection drug cyclosporin all interfere with a critical, biochemical process used by many organisms to eliminate toxic compounds. In the presence of even minute quantities of any one of these commonly prescribed drugs, tiny amounts of other chemicals, normally non-toxic, suddenly become deadly.
In its first 13 weeks, Viagra sold 2.7 million prescriptions. Dr Bell explained that Viagra disrupts a common enzyme that occurs in many animal species and is related to many different functions beyond the sexual. Yet, have you heard its manufacturer, any government regulator or any medical body express the slightest concern about its environmental impact?
The volume of discharges from other personal care products is astounding. In 1993, in Germany alone, 559,100 tons of cosmetics found their way into the ecosystem. These included thousands of tons of synthetic musks some known carcinogens. Topical disinfectants have been found in many natural waters in Europe. Even sunscreen agents, through the magic of bio-concentration, have been found in lake fish at concentrations of over 5,000 times higher than in the water itself.
"When will we wake up and address our reckless folly?" asked Dr. Bell. "When will we compel our regulators to start exercising the precautionary principle? When will we stop saying: Let's use [drugs] until people and animals start dying, and instead say: Let's not use them until we test them?"
Of course, drug residues are only one component of the contamination of our water supply. Like most industrialized countries, Canada discharges vast quantities of toxic or potentially toxic substances into ocean and inland waters. Pesticides and other agrochemicals, disinfectant agents and their byproducts (such as trihalomethanes) and other industrial chemicals of an astonishing diversity constitute our "contaminants of choice."
"I urge you to act to stem the tide of chemicals and other pollutants that are pouring into our waters," Dr. Bell charged the conference participants on Parliament Hill. "I urge you to do so in order that, literally, the lives of our grandchildren may not be blighted with suffering and insidious pain."
He added that we not only need to stop contaminating our water, we also need to quit wasting it. The average Canadian uses 340 litres of water daily while the average citizen of a developing country uses 10 litres per day.
"We need to act now to preserve our water supply for future generations. We need to become aware of what we are doing to the biosphere, and we need to begin acting responsibly," said Dr Bell.