European Commission’s proposal to restrict harmful pharmaceuticals in freshwater rejected

Posted: November 29, 2012 in Ethics, Events, Policy, Science

Two chemicals found in certain birth control pills and one anti-inflammatory drug adversely affect aquatic life, but yesterday the European Parliament’s environment committee voted by large margin to reject a proposal by the European Commission to restrict the presence of these chemicals in freshwater. Are we seeing the start to another DDT/Bald Eagle catastrophe?

Fifteen chemicals were proposed to both be added to the water priority substances list (items to be monitored) and create environmental quality standards (set upper limits for the concentration allowed of each chemical in freshwater) in the Water Framework Directive of the European Union (EU). Chemicals such as these find their way into freshwater sources via municipal sewage waste passing through wastewater treatment plants and back into the natural environment. Due to mounting pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, the three pharmaceutical chemicals on the list were only added to the water priority substances list but were not given concentration limits in freshwater sources. These three pharmaceuticals were the first pharmaceuticals to be considered for addition, marking a significant opportunity lost for the EU to set precedent of how it will deal with harmful pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in the future.

In addition to fierce opposition by pharmaceutical companies, the EU member states were also alarmed by the proposed cost for retrofitting waste water treatment facilities that could be required if levels of these pharmaceuticals were to be regulated (the United Kingdom (UK) government estimated their potential costs to be in the 40 billion dollar range). A news article in last week’s Nature states, “The EE2 standard would represent a severe cut in pollution levels. For example, a study led by environmental chemist Mike Gardner at Atkins, an environmental consultancy headquartered in Epsom, UK, tested effluents from 160 wastewater treatment plants. He found that almost all effluents exceeded the commission’s proposed standard for EE2, and that about half exceeded it by more than 13 times.” An editorial in the same issue of Nature reads, “Nature’s investigation shows that the UK estimate ignores significant cost-cutting opportunities. And is the cost really so high when the UK water industry has already committed to spend £22 billion from 2010–15 to improve infrastructure and water quality in England and Wales?…In addition, the discussion has focused on wastewater treatment, with little consideration of what the pharmaceutical and farming industries could do to keep their drugs out of the aquatic environment. Doctors and patients have a responsibility here, too, to make sure that the drugs are prescribed appropriately and that leftover pills are disposed of properly….”

“Today’s vote in the Parliament is bad news for aquatic life. The evidence of fish feminisation caused by the endocrine-disrupting chemicals is among the most extensive and alarming we have on the impact of chemicals on the aquatic environment.  By delaying action on these three pharmaceuticals for another  decade), The Environment Committee has set a dangerous precedent by ignoring the robust scientific evidence. Unfortunately, the problem is not going to go away and will only get worse and more difficult to solve.” said Sergey Moroz, World Wildlife Fund Water Policy Officer. Over the next four years, these three pharmaceuticals will be monitored and concentration limits and quality standards may be enacted if the monitoring shows sufficient harm to aquatic life. Considering the amount of evidence that has already demonstrated the harmful nature of these chemicals and the committee’s refusal to regulate them, environmentalists remain skeptical that new standards will be enacted in the future, because as many claim, the decision was political and not based on the scientific evidence.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals, like the active ingredient in the contraceptive pill, ethynyl oestradiol (EE2; one of the chemicals proposed for environmental limits), collect in the environment via municipal sewage waste, either through human excretion or the improper disposal of unused pharmaceutics via the toilet.  Endocrine disrupters act as synthetic hormones and can throw-off the normal balance of certain hormones in the body. Endocrine disruptors are substances that “interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, binding, action, or elimination of natural hormones in the body that are responsible for development, behavior, fertility, and maintenance of homeostasis”.

The chemical dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), used as a pesticide and to combat malaria, gained notoriety in the 1940s for its harmful effect on birds, beneficial insects, fish, and marine invertebrates. DDT was shown to inhibit eggshell formation in birds, causing the eggshells to be too brittle to withstand the weight of the adult bird, and lead to the near decimation of the Bald Eagle in the US. DDT is just one of numerous examples of the negative effect endocrine disrupting chemicals can have on both human and animals alike.

“It is time to set aside scare tactics and to have an open and honest discussion about how to solve a potentially devastating environmental problem. The European Commission’s proposed limits on the levels of EE2 in streams and lakes are a crucial first step,” reads the Nature editorial. I agree with this sentiment. I remember reading and learning about endocrine disrupters in college and being alarmed that governmental agencies refused to take steps to eliminate these toxic chemicals from our environments, even in the face of large amounts of data demonstrating their adverse effects. For example, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and other known neurotoxic chemicals were ingredients in baby food for years until sufficient public outcry forced baby food manufacturers to discontinue their use of these substances.

As has been the case for many of these endocrine disrupters and other harmful chemicals, regulation only comes after large amounts of damage has been done. Currently, the water and pharmaceutical industries do not believe there is sufficient evidence for harm and have called the data “limited” and “inconclusive.” I find no comfort in this assurance, considering, as Nature reports, “Fish populations may be stable now, but a study of fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) in an experimental lake in Canada has shown that exposure to high levels of EE2 triggered a population crash.”

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