Prescription Drugs

Synthetic female hormones in sewage are toxic to male fish over generations

By Kristen Keteles

I’m a toxicologist at EPA in Denver, Colorado, and I study how pollutants can affect ecological and human health. I work with a team of scientists from academia (Colorado State University, University of Colorado Denver) and U.S. Geological Society to understand the potential effects of hormones and medications that are discharged into the environment. Did you know a very potent synthetic female hormone used in prescription drugs can be found in water and could be harming fish? We’re finding in our study that it can wipe out fish populations over several generations, and it’s the male fish that are most affected. Some studies have found that male fish below waste water treatment plants, and exposed to female hormones, can lose their masculine characteristics and become indistinguishable from females. Our new study found that a potent form of the female hormone estrogen used in prescription drugs not only causes the males to look female, it also appears to be toxic to male fish and these effects may impact future generations of fish.

Where do these hormones and medications come from? All of us. Humans excrete hormones and medications, which often end up in our rivers and streams from sewage. Disposing of medications by flushing can also contribute to pharmaceuticals in the environment. A growing human population, combined with effects of climate change like decreasing precipitation, has resulted in many streams containing higher concentrations of waste water. In fact, some streams in the west are 90% waste water. Not a nice thought if you like to kayak and fish, like I do. The water IS treated, but many hormones and pharmaceuticals are not completely removed by the waste water treatment plants. So, more people and less water equals more hormones and drugs in the water. My team is trying to determine what this means for fish, and ultimately for people, too. Although, currently, EPA does not have water quality standards for these types of chemicals, our study may help determine if such water quality standards are needed.

We looked at effects of exposure to a synthetic estrogen used in prescription drugs to fathead minnows over multiple generations by conducting experiments, both in the laboratory and in outdoor water tanks that mimic natural conditions.

Chemical exposure to female hormones in prescription drugs was found to increase the chances of death in male fish, but not females. And, fish exposed when they were young, but not as adults, were not able to reproduce later on in life. In addition, fish that weren’t even exposed to the prescription drugs, but were born to parents who were exposed, were less likely to reproduce. It could be that synthetic estrogen in prescription drugs, combined with other natural and synthetic hormones in the water, are reducing male fish fertility and could affect fish populations.

This is why it’s important to do what we can to protect fish breeding habitats in unpolluted areas. What are some things that your community can do to protect fish habitat? Read our information on how to dispose of unused medications to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals that end up in water.

About the author: Kristen Keteles is a toxicologist in the Support Program of the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation in EPA Region 8 in Denver. She has been with EPA for six years.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

 

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Got Drugs? Make the Connection!

By Kelly Dulka

This Saturday, September 29th, is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.  What does this have to do with the environment you ask? Well, let me tell you about a discussion I had with some friends last week.

I live in a little, rural community that happens to be a peninsula surrounded by water.  I was mentioning to a couple of my friends who have a waterfront home about the take-back day coming up.  I was surprised to hear them say that they just flush their expired prescription meds.  The homes in our little community rely on wells for our water and septic tanks/fields for waste disposal.  I explained to them how whatever we flush passes through our septic fields, into the ground, and will very likely end up in our rivers.

Prescription medications fall under the category of pharmaceuticals and personal care product pollutants (PPCPs). Even in other, less rural communities there are no municipal water treatment plants equipped to remove PPCPs from water.

So what’s the big deal? Although we aren’t exactly certain yet what the effects of these pollutants are, one thing is for sure, it can’t be helping the aquatic wildlife and ecosystems, many of which are struggling even without this additional burden.

I know my friends love the river; and enjoy both the recreational fun, and the fish and seafood it provides for us. Sometimes I think people do things because that’s the way they’ve always done things. It’s important for all of us to learn about the issue, and make the connection between our actions and the consequences on our environment.

So in the next few days, gather up those old, expired prescription medications, and on Saturday take them to a drop off center near you for proper disposal.

About the author: Kelly Dulka works in the Office of Web Communications.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Amazing Accomplishment from One Teenager

A colleague of mine suggested I read about a runner-up President’s Environmental Youth Award applicant named Jordyn. I started reading Jordyn’s application and thought to myself, “wow, she was a runner-up?”, she should be named the young environmentalist of the year!

After reading that 80% of waterways tested in 30 states had trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and hearing about “pharm parties,” where teens bring pills from home, mix them in a bowl, and blindly take a couple, Jordyn decided to take action! Jordyn, a freshman at the time, decided to create WI P2D2 (Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal) to educate her town about prescription-drug abuse and environmentally safe pill disposal.

JordynJordyn used some amazingly inventive communication tools to deliver her message including; a “Phil the Pill” costume, and a clear glass of water in which she placed pills and asked her audience if they would now like to take a drink. None of them did!

She secured a community drop-box for unwanted pills, used Facebook, YouTube, and T-shirts to get the word out, and persuaded local pharmacists and police officers to help.

Jordyn is the first teen to have written and been awarded state and local grants to secure funds for a drug collection event. At her first event, Jordyn collected an astonishing 440 pounds of drugs! Her accomplishments have been featured in numerous media outlets in both America and Canada.

Jordyn’s program is a perfect example of a multi-disiplinary solution to a multi-faceted local problem. If even a small percentage of the upcoming generations are as successful at improving their environment as Jordyn, I believe the environment will be in great hands. It strikes me that if a teenager can accomplish so much, as adult environmentalists we should follow her example, and never accept anything but complete success. Maybe we can convince her to work for EPA one day!

About the author: Wendy Dew has been with EPA for 13 years and is the Environmental Education and Outreach Coordinator for Region 8.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Question of the Week: What do you do with unused over-the-counter or prescription drugs?

Each week we ask a question related to the environment. Please let us know your thoughts as comments. Feel free to respond to earlier comments or post new ideas. Previous questions.

Drugs and pharmaceutical products include powerful chemicals that have saved or improved countless lives. But even small amounts of drugs need to be disposed of carefully so they don’t pollute the environment or harm human health and wildlife. In early 2007 the government set guidelines for proper disposal of prescription drugs.

What do you do with unused over-the-counter or prescription drugs?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Question of the Week: ¿Qué hace con medicamentos que no ha usado sean recetados por el médico o aquellos que ha obtenido sin receta médica?

Cada semana hacemos una pregunta relacionada al medio ambiente. Por favor comparta con nosotros sus pensamientos y comentarios. Siéntase en libertad de responder a comentarios anteriores o plantear nuevas ideas. Preguntas previas.

Los medicamentos o productos farmacéuticos contienen poderosas sustancias químicas que salvan o mejoran numerosas vidas. Sin embargo, aún las cantidades de medicamentos más pequeñas tienen que ser desechadas cuidadosamente para no contaminar el medio ambiente ni perjudicar la salud humana o la vida silvestre. A principios del 2007, el gobierno estableció normas para desechar adecuadamente los mediocamentos recetados.

¿Qué hace con medicamentos que no ha usado sean recetados por el médico o aquellos que ha obtenido sin receta médica?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.