Am I my water's keeper?

Pharmaceuticals and plastic chemicals in marine and fresh waters.

pharma_water.jpg The concept of product stewardship, cradle-to-cradle, or, in more technical language, "life cycle assessment," has now acquired unprecedented urgency. It is no longer sufficient for businesses merely to manufacture a consumer item - be it a potent antibacterial pesticide or a flame retardant-loaded plastic - and sell it in the marketplace. As we look aghast at discarded products polluting the environment, we demand to know, "Whose job is it to clean up the mess?" Let's go step by step, starting with prescription drugs and antibiotics. We all recall a deep feeling of gratitude for those moments when we really needed medicines, for a migraine or for a severe infection. But when these chemicals pass through our bodies or when unused pharmaceuticals are disposed by hospitals, nursing homes, veterinary practices or concentrated animal feedlots, they end up in our water streams. Yes, FDA and EPA lack data showing health effects from exposure to low levels of anti-inflammatory or anti-seizure medications that come with our tap water. But that does not mean they are safe. Last April, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works called a hearing to press for more data about the effects of pharmaceutical-polluted tap water, especially for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and newborn babies. As Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA., put it, "Fish and wildlife that live in our waters are the familiar 'canaries in a coal mine.' Scientific evidence is growing that small levels of contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, can damage reproduction and development in fish and wildlife. Science is telling us: be careful."

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