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Experts raise concerns after finding evidence of meth-addicted fish: 'Active pharmaceutical ingredients are found in waterways all around the globe'

"Drug exposure is causing significant, unexpected changes to some animals' behavior and anatomy."

"Drug exposure is causing significant, unexpected changes to some animals’ behavior and anatomy."

Photo Credit: iStock

A study showed pharmaceuticals are polluting the environment and causing concerning changes in wildlife populations worldwide.

What's happening?

"Drug exposure is causing significant, unexpected changes to some animals' behaviour and anatomy," the Guardian reported.

Cocaine, anti-anxiety medications, and antipsychotics, among others, have entered ecosystems. The paper was published in Nature Sustainability.

Other studies have documented contraceptive-induced sex organ changes in fish that caused population collapses, male starlings engaging in aggressive behavior and singing less to attract antidepressant-dosed female starlings, and trout that preferred methamphetamine-laced water to clean water during a withdrawal period.

"Active pharmaceutical ingredients are found in waterways all around the globe, including in organisms that we might eat," Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences assistant professor and study co-author Michael Bertram told the Guardian.

The problem is getting worse and demands a green solution to API pollution, the outlet reported.

Why is pharmaceutical pollution important?

Even caffeine and anti-inflammatory drugs can have outsize effects on wildlife because they are designed to be effective in humans at low doses.

Pharmaceutical pollution is combining with overconsumption, habitat destruction, and climate change to harm biodiversity around the world, according to the Guardian.

"There are a few pathways for these chemicals to enter the environment," Bertram said. "If there is inadequate treatment of pharmaceuticals that are being released during drug production, that's one way. Another is during use. When a human takes a pill, not all of that drug is broken down inside our bodies and so through our excrement, the effluent is released directly into the environment."

Humans and animals are already threatened by the production of carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases that are driving increasing temperatures and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. Supervolcanoes have caused past extinction events, but we are producing CO2 200 times faster than those eruptions.

Not only can humans ingest these drugs by eating contaminated food, but we can also suffer from decreasing biodiversity. Declines in bee populations, for example, threaten food supplies.

What's being done about pharmaceutical pollution?

Medical professionals could be taught about the environmental impacts of drugs, as the Guardian detailed, and lead safe handling and disposal practices. Pharmaceuticals could also be designed to break down after being used. And wastewater treatment operations could be changed to prevent drugs from polluting the environment.

Most importantly, drug designers and manufacturers will have to invest time and money to engineer products that are safe throughout their life cycles.

"Greener drugs lessen the potential for pollution throughout the entire cycle, reducing the need for other downstream mitigation measures," the study authors wrote. "As such, pharmaceuticals — as well as their additives, adjuvants and excipients — should be designed not only to be efficacious and safe, but also to be quickly and fully mineralized to carbon dioxide and water after excretion (for example, by environmental biodegradation). This approach, known as 'benign by design', is a key aspect of green pharmacy and has been successfully conducted with persistent APIs such as fluoroquinolone antibiotics."

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