Tablets, suppositories, juices - there is a pill for almost every one of our big and small everyday ailments. And for many, the day only begins with their favorite drug, caffeine. A large part of the active ingredients is not absorbed by the body but excreted and migrates into rivers and lakes, gets into the ground water and can even be found in drinking water. Various research groups have independently found lipid-lowering drugs, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, analgesics, antiseptics, beta-blockers and other drugs in drinking water, lakes, rivers and streams (Science News of March 21, 1998). They were able to prove that the substances did not come from industrial production, but that they entered the water cycle from human excrement. Up to 90 percent of some pharmaceuticals are excreted in their original or biologically active form. In other cases, partially degraded active ingredients are restored to their active form by chemical reactions occurring in the environment.
There aren't any comparable studies in the US, but James F. Pendergast of the Environmental Protection Agency, says water company engineers have known for some time that one of the most common pharmaceutically active compounds has peak levels, especially in the morning hours achieved in waste water: caffeine.
According to the article in Science News, this year the Swiss Federal Research Institute in Wädenswil discovered clofibric acid, a widespread lipid-lowering agent, in all bodies of water in Switzerland – from mountain lakes to rivers that flow through densely populated areas. The ubiquity of this substance, which is not produced at all in Switzerland, argues against the contamination being caused by an industrial accident. It's more likely to come from human excrement, says Swiss scientist Hans-Rudolf Buser.
Science News cites an earlier study by scientists at the Technical University of Berlin who found high concentrations of clofibric acid (4 ppb=4 particles in a billion particles) in Berlin's groundwater. Even in the tap water samples, up to 0.2 ppb could be found. Another team of researchers has discovered other drugs in Berlin's drinking water that regulate the concentration of blood lipids (such as phenazone and fenofibric acid) and anti-inflammatory drugs (including ibuprofen and diclofenac).
In another research paper, the chemist Thomas A. Ternes from the ESWE Institute for Water Research and Water Technology in Wiesbaden started a project to monitor water and 30 out of 60 common pharmaceuticals in wastewater, treated water and in almost all streams and rivers examined discovered in Germany. Among other things, he found: lipid-lowering drugs, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, antiseptics, beta-blockers and drugs to treat epilepsy.
The concentrations of antibiotics found in German wastewater indicate that "these antibiotics are present in concentrations that have consequences for bacteria - concentrations that not only change the ecology of the environment, but also to resistance to these antibiotics," said Stuart Levy, director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University in Boston.
Since the detected substances were developed as medicines, they are subject to the supervision of the he alth authorities. These usually do not have the appropriate skills in questions of nature and water protection. In addition, they do not regard pharmaceuticals as potential environmental pollutants, although up to 90 percent of the drugs ingested leave the body with urine and stool. In addition, the previously available measuring methods were too imprecise to detect low substance concentrations. Chemists can now routinely detect quantities of a few ppt (parts per trillion=parts per trillion).
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