All-Female Team of Scientists Saving Oceans From Pharma Pollution

July 3, 2020

Take a look in your medicine cabinet next time you venture into the bathroom. What do you see? Likely a standard array of over-the-counter remedies for things like headaches, menstrual cramps, allergies, jetlag, and heartburn. There might be some extras like birth control pills, antidepressants, and steroids thrown in there for good measure. Am I right? You’re a human living in the modern world, so of course, you’re likely to have at your disposal a few standard pharmaceuticals to help you through the rough times at best, or daily routine at worst.

I’m a physiologist, so while I’m in favor of holistic health and integrative medicine that considers mind, body, and soul in treatment, I understand that drugs are essential, life-saving tools for many of us. No drug is without its side effects, though more often than not, the pros outweigh the cons. Therefore, it appears to be all well and good, right?

The liver is constantly metabolizing excess chemicals in the body, so as to prevent toxicity. Some of the drugs we take in are broken down while others leave without much change. Together, these are excreted when we excuse ourselves to go to the bathroom. It’s a very effective process and happens constantly, as long as the liver is in good, working order. Ergo, there’s no need to get swept up in extreme detox trends. Instead, focus on maintaining healthy liver function by keeping an eye on alcohol intake and exposure to toxic compounds like certain cleaning products, pesticides, and herbicides.

So here we are taking our drugs, living our lives, and giving very little thought to what happens once those compounds leave our bodies with each toilet flush, making their way into our waterways. That was until wildlife biologists noticed the widespread feminization of marine species, which began to raise questions.

In 2016, scientists found evidence of estrogenic endocrine disruption in vast areas of the Northeast of the U.S. Male largemouth and smallmouth bass were exhibiting intersex, otherwise known as sexual characteristics outside the typical binary system of male and female. Male fish were developing eggs inside their testes, which spurred enormous concern for the future of reproduction in these species. Hormone disruption has been documented since at least the early 2000s in fish species across the U.S., but also in alligators, frogs, turtles, and other animals worldwide. With hormonal birth control use extremely common in young women, I question when the alarm bells will finally sound.

Another common threat to wildlife is diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory NSAID used to treat swelling and joint stiffness. Routinely used in veterinary medicine for cattle, diclofenac has driven Eurasian griffon vultures to the brink. Vultures are scavengers, feeding on animal carcasses and after white-backed vulture numbers fell by 95% in 2003 in India, the connection was made to diclofenac use in cattle.

Other avian species affected by pharmaceutical waste products include starlings, found to feed less when exposed to the common antidepressant, fluoxetine (an SSRI sold under brand names Prozac and Sarafem, amongst others). Not only was foraging behavior found to change in these animals, but also physiological traits that led to lower body mass. With antidepressant dependence rife in the U.K. and the U.S., this raises questions about which other bird species are prone to such disturbances.

Animals aside (though there are numerous other cases similar to the above,) it is important that we consider the cumulative effects of drug-contaminated water on humans. A 2010 study deemed levels of medications like antipsychotics, beta-blockers, and antibiotics present in such low levels that they would be unable to initiate a biological response, but for anything that is fat-soluble, this might be up for debate in years to come, if nothing is done to mitigate the build-up.

Cleaning wastewater of such microscopic contaminants is no mean feat. Typically the process requires several stages of filtration to get anywhere close. However, an all-female team of biochemists from Swansea University in the U.K. may have found a solution. In collaboration with the international company, Biotage, the team has designed a method known as QuEChERS, with mass spectrometric detection. In one streamlined step, this technique can detect, extract, and quantify numerous drug compounds where previously multiple steps were required. This saves time and resources, increasing the efficiency of water treatment.

While the system is refined and rolled out across the U.K. and further afield, we can all do our bit in preventing excess pharmaceutical products from making their way down the drains by participating in drug take-back programs where available, limiting bulk-purchasing unless necessary, and if they must be disposed of in the trash, ensuring that we do so responsibly. This involves removing any unused pills from the original packaging, crushing them up, and placing them in a bag with sawdust, cat litter or coffee grounds to discourage wildlife from consuming the contents.

In true circle of life fashion, what goes around comes around. It’s important that we lend a thought to wildlife in everything we do, but how about we start with our water. How will you combat pollution today?

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Photo: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash and LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash

Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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