It turns out corporate polluters aren’t the only ones disrupting natural ecosystems. Substances excreted by the human body, including illegal drugs, are also finding their way into food chains and aquatic environments. The results are troubling. In a recent investigation published in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers found illegal drug residue in six different rivers in and around Baltimore, Maryland. MDMA, crystal meth, and amphetamine were among the illicit drugs present in collected samples. In order to measure their impact on stream ecology, the researchers then created artificial, simulated streams in the laboratory to which they introduced amphetamine. Amphetamine is a powerful stimulant and a well-known illicit drug better known by its street name “speed.” It is quickly metabolized by the body upon ingestion and, like many drugs, a large percentage of the original compound, 30-40% in this case, is excreted in human urine. Once excreted, it usually ends up in municipal sewage systems where it is treated. However, treatment methods fail to remove the incredibly small dissolved particles of amphetamine residue, which then end up in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
The simulated stream environments exposed to amphetamine suffered various negative effects as a result. Streams treated with the drug produced 85% less bio-film – an organic, slimy algae that is a key part of the ecosystem’s food chain. In addition, the amount of living and dead organisms floating in the water, also called seston, increased by 24%. However, seston respiration decreased by 30%, suggesting that the organisms responsible for the increase were mostly dead. The presence of amphetamine also caused a massive decline in some bacterial populations while causing a massive boom in others, reducing overall micro-biodiversity and ecological stability. It also led to increases in fly and midge populations, insects that are often considered as pests. In addition, the study’s authors warned that the effects of illegal drugs in aquatic environments would also likely impact terrestrial ecosystems as many of the affected organisms are prey for land animals. Thanks to biomagnification, the drug residues present in prey accumulates in ever greater amounts as it moves up the food chain, which could make their deleterious effects even more potent on an even larger scale than the study suggests.
However, it’s not just illegal drugs we should be worried about. Legal, pharmaceutical drugs are also appearing in aquatic ecosystems where they also wreak havoc. Because they are heavily prescribed and not banned by federal law, the amounts of pharmaceutical residues in lakes, rivers, and streams is much higher than their illegal counterparts with more than 100 different pharmaceuticals having been identified in lakes, rivers, and streams throughout the world. According to the Associated Press, pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones have been found in the drinking water for over 41 million Americans. In aquatic ecosystems, they have been shown to cause the feminization of male fish as well as reduce populations of sentinel species at the bottom of the food chain, including earthworms and zooplankton.
In spite of their widespread presence, the federal government doesn’t require any testing and has yet to set any safety limits for drugs, legal and illegal, in water supplies. Even more worrisome is the fact that the addition of chlorine to drinking water, considered standard procedure in most water treatment facilities, has also been shown to make pharmaceutical residue even more toxic when present, further increasing risks to human health and wildlife. It seems like nearly all life on Earth is being medicated, whether they are conscious of it or not.
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