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A Toxics-Free Future


New report from National Toxics Network: Pharmaceutical pollution in the environment: issues for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Regions

See the report and a fact sheet here:
Pharmaceuticals a hidden risk to the environment, says new report
Date - May 31, 2015 - 12:15AM

Natalie O'Brien

Australians are popping way too many pills and it is not just bad for the population, it is also increasingly bad for the environment.

Antibiotics, painkillers, heart drugs, oral contraceptives and anti-depressants are just some of the drugs being swallowed and excreted or thrown away, and they are slowly building up to "alarming" levels in river systems and marine sediments around the world, according to a new report.

The report by the National Toxics Network, entitled "Pharmaceutical pollution in the environment: issues for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Regions", has warned that the drugs are ending up in the water and soil through treated and untreated sewage being used as fertiliser, and there are no checks on accumulating levels.
It is one of the first reports of its kind to bring together and examine available data, which shows multiple drugs are in biosolids and treated waste water being used as fertiliser and are turning up in river and marine sediments in Australia. 

The author of the report, Dr Kirstie Murdoch, who has a PhD in molecular and cellular biology, said antibiotics are of "particular concern to human health" due to their potential to exacerbate the problem of antibiotic resistance.

"There is also growing evidence of the adverse impacts on human health of endocrine disruptors," Dr Murdoch said. "Many pharmaceuticals are designed to act on the endocrine system, such as estrogens in oral contraceptives.  Chronic exposure to low levels of such estrogens has been found to disrupt reproduction in fish."

She said sewage was being used as fertiliser on cropping lands but there were no guidelines or testing for pharmaceuticals in the fertiliser and no established "safe levels".

"The extent of the impact of this pollution on human health and the environment is unknown. However, physiological and behavioural effects have already been detected in a number of species," she said.

Sydney Water produces about 170,000 tonnes of biosolids each year. Around 30 per cent makes compost and the rest is used for to fertilise 20 mainly broad-acre farms across the central west and south west.

A spokesman for Sydney Water said all biosolids were tested for compliance with the EPA Guidelines, which included treatment, handling and testing. He said the the guidelines did not require pharmaceutical testing.

"While there is the potential for biosolids to contain trace amounts of pharmaceutical chemicals, due to the strict management and treatment requirements for biosolids the risks to either the environment or human health are considered highly unlikely," the spokesman said.

He said the treatment process was not targeted to directly remove pharmaceuticals from biosolids. But there was currently a large body of research being undertaken on the topic of pharmaceuticals in wastewater and biosolids.

Wastewater recycling expert Dr Michael Short, from the University of South Australia, said the lack of guidelines was largely due to a lack of established data on the exposure pathways, and the toxicity to the humans and the environmental.

The limited research to date "indicates minimal direct human health risks associated with these chemicals", he said. For pharmaceuticals, personal care products and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, many of those compounds degrades quite quickly in soil afer application of wastewater or biosolids. But some compounds were more persistent – these did appear to bio-accumulate in animals and could also have endocrine-disrupting properties in humans. "So more work is needed here to better understand the effects of these chemicals and look for ways to limit their use and release to the environment," Dr Short said.

Dr Murdoch has recommended introducing robust systems for safe disposal of unwanted or expired pharmaceuticals. He also wants to see introduction of effective wastewater treatment technologies that remove and degrade the drugs, and binding guidelines to regulate the amount of drugs allowed in the treated wastewater and biosolid fertiliser.