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Pollution Experts: Save Fish from Drugs in Water

Jeff Donn, San Francisco Chronicle
June, 2009

Pollution experts on Tuesday pressed a congressional panel for stronger action to keep pharmaceuticals and other contaminants out of the water, saying they are hurting fish and may threaten human health.

Thomas P. Fote, a New Jersey conservationist who sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said the pollutants are damaging commercial fisheries. He told congressmen not to “study a problem to death and never do anything.”

Fote appeared in a lineup of witnesses Tuesday before the subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The witnesses pointed to research showing damage to fish and other aquatic species from pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other industrial chemicals, especially those that alter growth-regulating endocrine systems. Some scientists worry about the potential of similar harm to humans.

“Hundreds of peer-reviewed publications … demonstrate that numerous ubiquitous chemicals in the environment can interfere with development via the endocrine system, but there appears to be no will or authority to remove those chemicals from the supply chain,” said zoologist Theo Colborn, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida, who founded the nonprofit Endocrine Disruption Exchange.

The witnesses appealed for Congress to promote consumer take-back programs for unused drugs, to encourage industry financing of disposal, and to do more to keep discards from waterways and landfills.

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The hearing comes on the heels of an Associated Press investigation that reported pharmaceutical traces in drinking water supplies of at least 51 million Americans and in many waterways. The drugs range from antibiotics to psychiatric drugs to endocrine-disrupting sex hormones.

One witness, pharmacist Fred Massoomi from Nebraska Methodist Hospital in Omaha, broke his collarbone in a recent fall and sat stiffly during his testimony. Asked by a panel member if he was in pain, he said, “Not right now.” Then he lifted a plastic bottle and smiled. “If I need any pain medication, I’ll just drink some water,” he said.

Most cities and water providers don’t test for pharmaceutical contaminants. The biggest source is considered to be human excretion, but manufacturers and health care facilities also send millions of tons of unused drugs into rivers and streams every year.

Utilities say their drinking water is safe, and no human risks are confirmed from pharmaceutical pollution. However, research shows that the pharmaceuticals sometimes harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species. Also, researchers report that human cells fail to grow normally in the laboratory when exposed to trace concentrations of certain drugs.

The House has already passed legislation to study the problem and find solutions, and the Senate is considering such a bill. Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo, D-Guam, who chaired the hearing, said she has talked to colleagues about the need for more legislation.