Pharmaceuticals - Killing or curing?


With the pharmaceuticals industry constantly growing, changing and expanding, more and more drugs are being produced, not all of which end up being used appropriately. With so many people worldwide on repeat prescription medication, and over-the-counter drugs being readily available in all supermarkets and most smaller shops, drugs are building up in people’s homes, and usually will not be disposed of correctly. Animals and plants are also suffering the same fate, with genetic modification to try and perfect meat and vegetables for human consumption, or even drugs prescribed by vets for pets, most animals also sample pharmaceuticals at some point in their lives.

Pharmaceuticals are a risk to animals and the environment

The problem with disposing of drugs incorrectly is the massive impact it is having on wild animals and the environment. The environmental impact of excess pharmaceuticals is catastophic and it is important to increase social awareness of how easily drugs can make their way into ecosystems. Because many humans are taking excessive amounts of drugs, they are not always fully utilised by the body and so a small portion of the drugs pass through the body completely and end up in the sewer system, and eventually into streams and rivers. Equally, drugs mount up in homes and many people take them to landfill sites which solve the problem of excess rubbish by burying it. When it rains, many of these pills begin to dissolve into the earth, disturbing whole ecosystems living in the soil.

Although this may sound like a small problem, animals are beginning to mutate due to the excess pharmaceuticals which have been introduced to their habitats. One such example that has been high profile recently is the mutation of fish in the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, with Potomac being the fourth largest river of the mid-Atlantic area of the United States. Up to 100% of smallmouth bass fish living in these rivers have mutated to develop intersex characteristics. This means fish which should only have one gender in a lifetime are now displaying signs of both male and female characteristics caused by pharmaceuticals in the river affecting the hormonal development of the fish. This may seem like an insignificant discovery, yet the hormonal systems of fish are very like those of humans, which indicates that humans could be affected by these levels of pharmaceuticals too. This is especially significant because traces of these drugs are now being found in American drinking water.

Pharmaceuticals in drinking water are a risk to humans

Once the drugs make their way into the ecosystem, they are very difficult to remove and can cause a number of problems to humans. An endocrine disruptor is one example of a pharmaceutical compound which is currently remaining in American drinking water after the purification processes. These endocrine disruptors have been linked to possible problems with the neurological development of children who have been exposed to the chemical. Human exposure also carries the increased risk of developing certain types of cancerous cells. The Washington Post has conducted a survey of people affected by endocrine disruptors in drinking water systems and it found that:
"cancer in Hardy County, where some residents get drinking water from the South Branch, found rates of cancer of the liver, gallbladder, ovaries and uterus that were higher than the state average."
This is significant because it shows a wide range of cancers that may be caused by the increased problem of incorrect pharmaceutical disposal. This is the first piece of solid evidence available that humans are being seriously affected by chemicals in their drinking systems, although as more research and money is being put into finding out the extent of the damage that has already been done to the ecosystems, more and more evidence of the extent of the problem is coming to light.

Making a positive change for the future

If this is a growing problem worldwide then there must be a way to stop it. To make a change, it is important first to limit the amount of drugs taken by humans without their conscious knowledge. Buying organic foods would be a massive step towards cutting down some of the chemicals entering human bodies without their specific knowledge and awareness. As the demand for organic food grows, farmers will stop using as many harmful pesticides on their crops, therefore also beginning to affect the amount of chemicals being washed into rivers where human drinking water is being sourced from.

It is important to always be aware of the correct method of disposing of unwanted medicines. Any unused drugs should be handed back into pharmacies where they can be disposed of safely in high-temperature incinerators. At the moment this is the only known safe method of disposal available, although many organisations run local drug take-back schemes where they collect unused drugs and dispose of them safely. In these ways the problem is being slowly tackled, but it is going to take a wider public awareness of the problem to deal with it on the scale necessary for real development.

by Claire

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