The Happiest Trout

Nov. 15, 2018

It’s become abundantly clear that medicines ingested by humans and discharged through effluent can affect animals throughout an ecosystem. A recent report reveals that this environmental exposure can, in some cases, subject them to high doses.

Researchers from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies Australia tested insects and animals from six streams near Melbourne. Between 2014 and 2015, they examined insects and their predators for 98 different medical drugs.

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The team found 69 of the drugs in tissue samples. They discovered that animals contained high doses of painkillers, antidepressants, and other drugs that had passed through municipal sewer systems unequipped to remove them.

According to The Times Union, “The most commonly found drugs in the insects were tramadol, a form of synthetic opiate; codeine, an opiate painkiller; fluconazole, an anti-fungal drug; the high blood pressure medication metoprolol; and clomipramine, an antidepressant.”

The researchers found that brown trout from one creek were, in fact, exposed to the equivalent of a quarter of a daily human dose of antidepressants. In another location, a platypus eating its normal diet of aquatic insects was being exposed to half of the daily dose for antidepressants.

In a parallel US study conducted on the Hudson River in New York by the US EPA, Riverkeeper, Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Queens College, researchers found that river water contained elevated levels of caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and concerning levels of 16 different pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, drugs for treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, epilepsy, ulcers, and heartburn.

“Some levels are high enough that you could be concerned about fish and other aquatic organisms,” said Andrew Juhl, an aquatic biologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who coauthored the study. “We don’t know the consequences for aquatic organisms of long-term chronic exposure to any of these substances, or mixtures of them.”

Researcher Emma Rosi, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies Australia, explains that these studies support increased funding to upgrade municipal sewer systems. “There are ways to treat water for some of these drugs,” she said, underscoring the importance of investing in infrastructure.

What treatment processes does your municipality use to remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater? What technologies have you found most effective? Do you have recommendations for other organizations looking to upgrade their infrastructure?
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.