Chemical contamination in environment, including pharmaceuticals, are 'growing at exponential rate'
by: Julie Wilson
The "innovative" and "challenging new compounds" created each day by commerce are threatening the planet in which we live, scientists say. More and more traces of pharmaceuticals are being discovered in our lakes, rivers and soil daily, and their effects are pretty much completely unknown.
For once, a lack of regulation on the government's part is largely to blame. The "environmental spread of pharmaceuticals" is totally ignored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), allowing these man-made pills to end up everywhere, including our drinking water.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which hasn't been updated since its creation, excludes drugs and pesticides. Under the law, the EPA is required to maintain a registry of industrial compounds that may be potentially toxic, but advanced safety testing of those materials is not required, according to a report by The New York Times.
"Congress has not sent an environmental law to the president's desk in 18 years"
Only a fraction of the estimated 84,000 compounds registered have been tested for their safety on humans, prompting scientists and environmental groups to call for serious revisions, in which the risk assessments of suspect compounds are performed.
"Our chemical safety net is more hole than net," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "Where does that leave us in terms of scientific understanding of what drugs to regulate?"
Anne Womack Kolton, vice president for communications at the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers said, "Think about the world 40 years ago. It was a vastly different place. It's common sense to revise the law and make it consistent with what we know about chemicals today."
The American Chemical Society maintains a database of chemical substance information containing more than 89 million organic and inorganic substances and 65 million sequences dating back to 1957. An estimated 15,000 new substances are added each day, many of which are poorly understood, scientists say.
In an essay published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Dr. Jerald L. Schnoor, a University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering, wrote about the way older compounds are altered in the environment. Some substances become even more toxic after they are broken down by plants or animals.
Chemical contamination in the environment is growing at an exponential rate, scientists say
For example, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs (which are banned in the U.S. but keep showing up in the environment), are broken down into even more "toxic metabolites," reported the Times.
Another example is chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide that when ingested by animals become 3,000 times more potent, according to Beyond Pesticides [PDF].
Minnesota Zumbro River laced with traces of prescription pills
While investigating the chemistry of the Minnesota Zumbro River, environmental health scientists were surprised at the "sheer range and variety" of prescription drugs they found. Relatively high levels of acetaminophen, an over-the-counter painkiller that causes liver damage in humans, the antibiotic anti-convulsive carbamazepine, caffeine and pesticides were among the contaminates found.
"We don't know what these background levels mean in terms of environmental or public health," said Deborah Swackhamer, the investigation's lead scientist.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tracks chemicals in waterways, sediments, landfills and municipal sewage sludge, which are often converted to fertilizer. Steroid hormones and triclosan (an antibacterial agent banned in Minnesota) were found in sewage.
The antidepressant Prozac has shown up in fish, causing them to be anxious, anti-social and even homicidal, reported the Scientific American.
"We're looking at an increasingly diverse array of organic and inorganic chemicals that may have ecosystem health effects," said Edward Furlong, a USGS chemist. "Many of them are understudied and unrecognized."
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