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Prozac for Fish

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Janice Kaspersen - Stormwater Editor
Dozens of chemicals that are commonly found in human drugs and cosmetic products are showing up in an unexpected place: the brains of fish in the Puget Sound.

A study by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington tested the waters for 150 different contaminants. They found 81 of them in wastewater flowing to Puget Sound estuaries.

Researchers tested three things: effluent from wastewater treatment plants, water from Puget Sound estuaries, and the fish themselves. Although they expected to find higher levels of chemicals in the estuaries nearest the treatment plants, they also found unexpectedly high levels in waters farther from the plants that were included as reference sites.

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The chemicals in question range from antibacterial compounds to substances found in prescription drugs. Two found in large quantities were metaformin, a drug used to treat diabetes, and fluoxetine, an antidepressant marketed as Prozac. Although many of the compounds detected are not toxic to humans, they are present in concentrations that can affect the behavior, growth, and reproduction of fish like Chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin. The fact that the substances are found in combination raises further questions about how they might interact and affect fish and other aquatic organisms. Researchers estimate as much as 300 pounds per day of the contaminants might be entering the waters of Puget Sound via treatment plant effluent.

An unrelated study reported three years ago in Scientific American showed that fish exposed to certain human antianxiety drugs such as Valium and Xanax display more aggressive behavior and consume food faster. The fish were more likely to swim into unfamiliar waters, thus putting themselves at risk from predators, and their increased rate of consumption of zooplankton—which in turn consumes algae—potentially lead to an increase in algae blooms.

We can’t necessarily affect what’s coming out of the wastewater treatment plants, but stormwater professionals are very much concerned with keeping surface waters “fishable and swimmable.” The drugs, which are not removed by standard treatment, enter the water in two ways. Some are excreted in urine, but the larger and more damaging source is people flushing their unused drugs down the toilet. More—and more widely publicized—programs to encourage people to return their unused drugs to pharmacies for proper disposal would help alleviate that problem. Eventually, new treatment methods—ozone, for one—might make wastewater treatment plants better able to remove the drugs as well.

Although the NOAA study did not specifically address the potential effects on humans of eating fish with high levels of these substances, it’s a question worth investigating. However, one scientist quoted in the Scientific American article notes that the chances of a person getting a significant amount of Valium from eating contaminated fish is small: “You’d have to eat four tons of perch from the river to get one tablet of the drug.”

Costs are rising, supplies are dwindling and the clock is ticking. Explore solutions and new ways to collaborate by joining your colleagues in San Diego January 22-23, 2019 at the Western Water Summit. Click here for details

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Wednesday, March 16

Qualifying Rain Events, Sampling, & the Construction Site Monitoring Plan

How effective is your SWPPP Construction Site Monitoring Plan? Join speaker and author Mike Peters, CPESC, QSD, to explore how to design and implement a plan that thoroughly maps out the stormwater effluent sampling, monitoring, data collection, and analysis at your construction site AND meets compliance.

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Thursday, April 7

Sidewalks & Recreational Trails: Design, Evaluation, and Management

Did you know that there are more than 1 million miles of sidewalk in North America, and 15-20% need repairs…estimated at $15 billion? Join David Hein to explore the latest innovation in sidewalks and recreation trail design, construction, and maintenance, and how you can apply these techniques to your sidewalks and trails to extend their lifetime, meet compliance, and reduce your costs.

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April 12 and 14

Hydraulics 101 (for Those Who Skipped It in College)

At a loss when hydraulic engineers start talking? Join former IECA president David Williams to learn to “talk the talk” and better understand your hydraulic engineers and their reports when they’re talking in terms of unsteady flow, allowable sheer stress, Manning’s “n,” etc. In this second part of our Surface Water Master Class series, Williams presents a live and on-demand two-session webinar, where he’ll discuss the base concepts, terms, and analyses behind hydraulics and hydraulic studies, as well as advanced topics (e.g., hydraulic scour of structures, weirs, culverts, hydraulic grade control, and bank stabilization), and how all of these are essential for effective hydraulic design.

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April 20 – May 26

Sediment & Erosion Control for Construction Sites Master Class Series

Join industry experts Jerald Fifield and Tina Evans for a comprehensive, six-part live and on-demand master class and workshop series exploring the ins and outs of effective sediment and erosion control plan design and review for construction sites. Enjoy six online lectures and Q&A sessions and three interactive workshops presented by Fifield and Evans, delving into Fifield’s best-selling third edition of Designing and Reviewing Effective Sediment and Erosion Control Plans (included in your Master Class Series package).

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Thursday, May 15

Stormwater Treatment Maintenance: What Works and How to Do It

A major struggle for all stormwater managers is developing an adequate stormwater treatment maintenance program…on a budget. Join returning speaker and author Andrew Erickson to explore the best practices in stormwater treatment maintenance design, implementation, and budgeting, as well as real-world data and examples of what works (and doesn’t).

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  1. Water quality issues caused by pesticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, etc., have been going on for a long time – you only need to look. But when the agencies/organizations best qualified to look are constantly under siege from interests that don’t want to know – people and the rest of the environmental system suffer. EPA has had a mandate to address pharmaceuticals and other endocrine disruptors in surface water for a while, but that’s fairly hard to do with no funding – and a non-functional Congress.
    While the statement about needing to eat so many tons of fish might hold true for Valium – no one has ever done a study about the combination of so many drugs and other chemicals. Somewhere along the way those in power decided that these compounds are only an issue when people fall over dead (like during a fish kill), but how many of our chronic diseases are influenced by these kinds of factors.
    Years ago (early 90s) the USGS published a study about contaminants in the Mississippi River. The one that caught my eye was the morning rise and fall of caffeine downstream of the major population centers. I often think of that study when I hear politicians deny that humans can have any effect on the planet.
    So is this yet another story where we just shake our head and move on – or are people willing to re-engage and start working the problem?

  2. Well, it makes me very concerned about the effects not only for humans, but specially about ecological cycles and about a possible biomagnification occurring in water environments. And more, each drug has a potential for unusual sinergetic pathways with other drugs, and so on. In 2007 there were more than 32 million chemical products listed, we must think about it. Thanks!

  3. More programs need to be put into place to properly dispose of old prescriptions. I recently called my pharmacy (Target) to see if I could bring them some expired prescriptions and they told me they were unable to accept the medication. Some agencies offer drug take-back events, but those seem few and far between.

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