Human products disrupt aquatic wildlife

By Julia John

A straight pipe collects sewage, which possibly contains a mix of sub-lethal drugs and personal care products, from residential areas and discharges it into the aquatic ecosystem without proper treatment. ©Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Thousands of products people use daily for health and cosmetic care end up in the world’s streams, creating an unregulated concoction of compounds that could damage aquatic ecosystems in ways scientists don’t yet understand. But an international team of researchers says these ubiquitous pharmaceuticals and personal care products, although seldom toxic, disrupt important ecological processes in wildlife.

Medical, hygiene and beauty products eventually flow from human homes into freshwater environments, “potentially exposing fish and other animals to a cocktail of drugs,” said Erinn Richmond, lead author on the paper published in Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

“We hope to gain a thorough understanding of the magnitude of ecological disruption caused by pharmaceuticals and personal care products, not only as single compounds but as complex cocktails — like how they occur in the environment — and hopefully lead to changes in management practices and contaminant regulations,” she said.

A doctoral candidate at Australia’s Monash University, Richmond and her collaborators reviewed over 115 scientific research publications to investigate the consequences of pharmaceuticals and personal care products for aquatic ecosystems.

“At the concentrations detected in the environment, pharmaceuticals and personal care products are rarely toxic,” she said, “but they can disrupt key ecological functions, including primary productivity and growth and behavioral dynamics within aquatic animals.”

Scientists have demonstrated that single pharmaceuticals and personal care products interfere with freshwater biological organisms, she said. They found that in waters with antidepressants, fish swim and feed more, and insects emerge earlier. But biologists aren’t aware of the combined sub-lethal effects of the different compounds that constantly run into aquatic habitats, Richmond said.

“This review highlights a greater need for chemical and contaminant management practices,” she said, to reduce the impacts of “ecologically disrupting compounds” on aquatic life.

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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