Something is very out of sync in aquatic ecosystems around the world.
Evidence can be found in the unusually widespread frequency of fish lesions, excessive mortality and intersex fish. Male fish containing eggs in their testes have been found nationwide, including Pennsylvania’s major watersheds, according to U.S. Geological Survey research. These problems plaguing fish and other aquatic life should be signs the water we rely on for drinking is also in trouble.
The likely culprits are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that upset the endocrine system, which regulates hormones and the reproductive system.
The sources of these chemicals are complex mixtures from agricultural animal wastes, pesticides and herbicides, and human sources from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sewage discharges, according to Vicki Blazer, fish biologist and lead Pennsylvania study author.
Low-dose exposure to EDCs at sensitive life stages can have long-term effects, including reproductive impairment, reduced disease resistance and early mortality.
These chemicals found in pharmaceuticals (human and veterinary) and personal care products
(PPCPs), flame retardants, antibacterial products, plastics, pesticides and fertilizers are not currently regulated or commonly monitored. Since exposure to these EDCs has also been linked to conditions such as low sperm counts and testicular cancer in men, as well as breast cancer, obesity and autism, what’s happening to aquatic animals should alert us to keep these chemicals out of the environment.
In 2008, Pennsylvania Sea Grant began tackling the problem of disposal and education. Before its first PPCP collection, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April 2008, the only choices locally were to flush unused meds, put them in the trash or keep them indefinitely in home medicine chests. All these options create serious public health issues, from drug abuse to water contamination.
In 2010, with an EPA Great Lakes Restoration grant and with Great Lakes Sea Grant partners in New York, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, Pennsylvania Sea Grant expanded its campaign to prevent unnecessary PPCPs from entering the environment. Sea Grant has educated and involved the public, elected officials, health-care professionals and others in solutions.
Its campaign has reached 1,227,057 people and safely disposed of 21,765 pounds of unused meds. Pa Sea Grant’s collection events, data and the partnerships formed with groups locally, throughout the Great Lakes and nationally picked up the steam needed to address PPCP use and disposal.
Groups include the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine School of Pharmacy and UPMC Hamot, health departments, police departments, the American Veterinary Medical Association, universities and others. Sea Grant staff members are currently working with the National Sea Grant Network to reach and teach more people nationwide. Pennsylvania and other states now have collection boxes at police departments that accept prescription and over-the-counter and pet medications. And during the past four years, upward of 4 million pounds have been collected in just 32 hours during eight National Prescription Drug Take-Back days sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and law enforcement agencies.
However, even these are not enough to keep drugs from every home, hospital, doctor’s office, and long-term care facility out of the environment or the hands of abusers. The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced plans to authorize pharmacies and hospitals to serve as drop-off sites for unused meds and an option to mail them directly to an authorized collector. Until these rules go into effect, you can use the collection boxes or participate in the next National Prescription Drug Take Back Day this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visit www.paseagrant.org for sites or call (800) 882-9539.
Join us next week to learn more about PPCP problems and solutions.