US Geological Survey studies show that most bodies of water in the United States are now contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs.

Why? Because wastewater treatment plants cannot remove the drugs before releasing “purified” water back into the environment. The cost of creating technology that is sophisticated enough to remove synthetic chemicals would be astronomical and bankrupt most local governments.

More than one hundred new drugs enter the marketplace each year. The health effects of these drugs, combined with the thousands of chemicals already in the environment, remain mostly unknown. Because many human diseases have long latency periods, it is difficult to connect an illness or disorder with exposures from long ago. Also complicating the matter is the fact that some of the drugs in our waterways act upon more than one hormonal pathway in the human body and are absorbed through multiple exposures from water, food, and air.

In September 2006, the Washington Post featured a front-page article revealing the findings of the US Geological Survey, which tested rivers in the Washington, DC, area. The rivers provide the tap water for several million residents of DC, northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland. Here are the key findings:

  • At least 80 percent of the bass caught in these rivers and river tributaries and then tested were found to have intersex organs, with the males growing eggs in their reproductive organs.
  • Since 2003, when these abnormalities in fish were first discovered in the upper Potomac River and West Virginia, the incidence of intersex births has spread rapidly and widely.
  • Hormone-disrupting chemicals released by wastewater treatment plants into these rivers were identified as the probable culprits behind these abnormalities.
  • The problem may be “a result of several pollutants acting in combination,” according to scientists. In other words, chemical synergies may be producing these mutant strains of fish.

In 1996 the US Congress directed the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a screening program to identify which chemicals were causing fish abnormalities. Today, more than a decade later, the EPA hasn’t tested a single chemical. The agency claims this costly technological challenge is beyond its limited resources. Scientists interviewed by the Washington Post expressed shock at the spread of hormone-disrupting chemicals and the EPA’s inability to even study the problem, much less offer solutions. Equally shocking is the confession by a water utility spokesman, who admitted ignorance as to whether or not water purification plants could remove the mutation-causing chemicals before humans ingested the water, or even if the utility is analyzing the water to look for the right things.

A 2007 US Geological Survey analysis of rivers surrounding Portland, Oregon, long known as one of the “cleanest” cities in the United States, revealed a dramatic accumulation of designer synthetic chemicals in the mud of the Willamette and Tualatin Rivers and several creek tributaries.

Drugs detected at high levels read like someone’s science experiment with a home medicine cabinet: there were three antidepressants, a mood stabilizer, an antibiotic, an antifungal used to treat athlete’s foot, high blood pressure medications, sedatives, antibacterial agents found in detergents, a fungicide . . . the list goes on and on.

“So little is known about what they [the chemicals] do to fish and aquatic life that no one is sure what’s safe in the environment over the long term,” reported the Portland Oregonian newspaper in a May 2007 article. “Scientists were surprised by what they found. Scientists working on related studies found signs that something in the water is turning the bodies of local salmon haywire. Young male and female salmon from the Willamette River around Portland held traces of an egg yolk protein usually found only in adult female fish beginning to develop eggs.”

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals were found in all but one of the twenty-three river sites where the scientists took samples. The newspaper reported: “Combined with PCBs, flame retardants, and other pollutants already known to be present in local rivers, the drugs and other substances put fish at risk in various ways, such as possibly disrupting their immune systems.” None of the experts interviewed could even begin to speculate on the possible health risks of eating the contaminated fish or drinking the contaminated water.

By Brian Clement, PhD, LN


US Geological Survey, Summary of US Geological Survey Information Related to the Intersex Characteristics of Fish in the Potomac Watershed, accessed February 10, 2012, chesapeake.usgs.gov/feature/fishhealthWWWfeature.pdf.

David Fahrenthold, “Male bass across region found to be bearing eggs,” Washington Post, September 6, 2006, A1.

Michael Rollins, “A medicine cabinet runs through it,” Portland Oregonian, March 10, 2008.

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