THE DETAILS: Baylor University researchers, who have been studying emerging contaminants in water for years, worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and tested rivers that receive water from treatment plants in Chicago, Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix, and the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester. Scientists tested fish at all the sites for 24 different human medications and 12 chemicals commonly used in personal-care products, and found that every river contained fish with 7 human drugs and 2 personal-care product ingredients.
The detected chemicals included an over-the-counter antihistamine; medications that treat blood pressure, epilepsy, and bipolar disorder; and antidepressants. Gemfibrozil, used to treat high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, was found in the livers of wild fish. Two fragrance ingredients used in soaps and other personal-care products were also detected in the fish, and they registered in higher amounts than the drugs.
WHAT IT MEANS: This isn’t good news for fish, and we don’t know what it means for people. “If [the chemicals] are in fish, then they also may be in humans,” says Anne Steinemann, PhD, University of Washington water researcher and Rodale.com advisor. The good news is that eating the contaminated fish is unlikely to expose you to the contaminants in significant amounts—you’d have to eat thousands of these fish to get a single dose of Prozac. But the drug contamination is clearly messing with fish function. Previous studies suggest antidepressants in water accumulate in fish and cause behavioral changes that interfere with their ability to mate and reproduce. The drugs also affect fish aggression. The effects of the fragrance chemicals on fish or people haven’t been well studied.
Here are some steps you can take to keep chemicals out of your local waters:
• Think before you flush. While the researchers believe a lot of the chemicals they detected in the water come from medications that pass through our bodies and go down the toilet, some of the contamination can be avoided. If you have unused medicine you need to get rid of, dumping it down the commode is not the answer. If no specific instructions for disposal are given on the label, you can mix unwanted meds with coffee grounds or kitty litter and put the mixture in a sealable bag before throwing it away. (Mixing the meds with gross stuff will make them less of an attraction to children or animals.) You can also call your city or county trash and recycling service to find out if there’s a community drug take-back program in your area. By the way, when you throw away your empty medicine container, make sure you cover all your personal info with a black marker or remove the label, to protect your identity.
• Go fragrance-free. The jury’s still out on the impact of fragrance chemicals on local watersheds. But there is plenty of evidence that synthetic fragrances contain chemicals, called phthalates, that could cause reproductive and developmental problems and an increased chance of developing asthma and allergies. To avoid health hazards from phthalates and keep them out of our water, choose unscented castile soap and free-and-clear detergents (without fragrance or dyes). Stay away from personal-care products that list “fragrance” or “parfum” as an ingredient.
• When it comes to your water, get personal. Take some time to study where your water comes from, and find out the health of the streams and rivers in your area with EPA’s Surf Your Watershed tool. Tapping into that knowledge can give you a greater appreciation of your environment, which ultimately affects your health, too. “We often tend to turn on the tap or take a shower, and the water comes on and goes away, but we don’t always realize how our usage relates to natural resources,” says study coauthor Bryan W. Brooks.