Pharmaceuticals disrupt sensitive stream habitat

Life in the Biofilm Close Up, Andrew Dopheide and Gillian Lewis, University of Auckland

Pharmaceutical pollution is  found in waters throughout the world. Causes include sewage overflows, aging infrastructure, and agricultural runoff. Even when waste water makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren’t equipped to remove most pharmaceuticals.

As a result, our streams and rivers are exposed to a cocktail of synthetic compounds, from stimulants and antibiotics to antihistamines

Dr. Emma Rosi of the Cary Institute is the lead author on a new paper highlighting the ecological cost of pharmaceutical waste. With colleagues from Indiana University and Loyola University Chicago, Rosi-Marshall looked at how six common pharmaceuticals impacted similar-sized streams in New York, Maryland, and Indiana.  Here is Dr. Rosi Marshall.

“Stream biofilms are sort of the base of the food web of aquatic ecosystems.  They fuel the energy available for fish and invertebrates.  So invertebrates in particular specialize on eating biofilms, and so we were interested to see whether or not pharmaceuticals might influence these aquatic biofilms, and then that might in turn have effects on fish and invertebrates.”

Healthy streams are slippery streams. And it turns out antihistamines dry out more than our noses. While all the drugs had some effect, the most striking result was caused by diphenhydramine, the allergy antihistimine.  Exposure caused biofilms at all three sites to experience significant drops in biomass, respiration, and photosynthesis.

Society’s dependence on pharmaceuticals is not likely to wane. This study adds another piece of evidence to the case calling for an overhaul of the way we manage waste water.

Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on April 15, 2013. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit:

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