TED Conversations

Allison Walter

This conversation is closed.

What is more important: Our drugs or our ecosystems?

Originally created to support human health and treat illnesses, pharmaceuticals are being scrutinized as a new class of water pollutants with potentially devastating effects on our ecosystems. Drugs including antibiotics, anti-depressants, birth control pills, and painkillers have been detected in our water sources. The remains of these drugs enter water systems through industrial waste, medical facilities, household toilets, and other methods of disposal. They then pass through sewage treatment facilities and into groundwater, irrigation systems, and waterways from lakes to oceans.

Numerous studies suggest that pharmaceutical wastes pose a significant environmental threat. For example, commonly used anti-depressants and birth control pills are being blamed for reducing fish sperm levels in lakes. Many aquatic and terrestrial organisms rely on fish for their own food and survival; therefore these drugs can be detrimental to biological diversity. Scientists are concerned that traces of pharmaceuticals in our water sources can be linked to abnormalities ranging from frog mutations, inter-sex fish, to an increase in cancer and behavior changes in aquatic organisms.

With the rise of global drug consumption, how much responsibility do the pharmaceutical companies have to protect the environment? How much responsibility do we have as individuals to stop taking these drugs if they cause harmful effects on the environment? Do the benefits we gain from drugs outweigh the long-term and irreversible impact they may have on our ecosystems?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    May 3 2012: The highest dose contraceptive pill I can find contains only 1 mg of estrogen substitute. Compared to all the other stuff we routinely wash down the drain this is irrelevant. Even if the estrogen goes straight through, the fact that the average person runs about 100 litres of water down the drain each day leaves a conc. of 1mg for every 200l of water assuming their is an equal division of sexes. How much soap do you wash down the drain each day? At least a thousand times as much. Plus it's quite common amongst fish for individuals to change sex.
    • thumb
      May 3 2012: This is no argument. Hormone effective stuff is active with extreme low doses.
      • thumb
        May 3 2012: My point is that if there are measurable levels of estrogen there would also be much higher levels of pesticides, petro-chemicals, nitrates and phosphates causing algal blooms etc. Any waterway with significant estrogen levels would be a toxic wasteland irrespcetive of whether there is any estrogen present.
        • thumb
          May 4 2012: I don't know about Australia but here sewage water is thoroughly cleaned before it is released into the sea.
          The major problem however isn't medicine but phthalates. Additives for plastics like:
          DBP (dibutyl phthalate).
          DINP (diisononyl phthalate).
          DEP (diethyl phthalate).
          DEHP (di 2-ethylhexl phthalate).
          DMP (dimethyl phthalate).
          BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate).
          DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate).
          DIDP (Diisodecyl phthalate).

          Those chemicals are found even in the blood of polar bears. The thing is that by their composition they occupy receptors for testosterone. As testosterone can't give their message on the right moment as the embryo sets on to form a male gender further development as male is blocked. Ever more people and animals that are genetically male develop as a female because of this.

          Lots of fish, amphibian and reptile species become male or female because of temperature changes. A smart system to avoid inbreeding but because those changes follow the seasons both gender are born in equal quantities. If you find only females of a species born over the last 10 years apparently something is wrong.
    • May 3 2012: Agree that this is no argument. Just because we put much worse stuff down our drains than estrogen does not make this ok. If the effect is measurable then we are creating a problem.
      • thumb
        May 4 2012: My point is that if the water was so polluted that there was detectable estrogen, the other stuff that inevitably goes with it would have already killed any fish in the water so removing the estrogen is pointless if you don't deal with all the other stuff as well.
        • May 6 2012: I think that one of the main reasons as to why pharmaceutical pollution is such an issue is that waste water treatment plants don't have the means to remove drugs from water like they can remove a lot of the "other stuff that inevitably goes with it." We can clean water of many of the chemicals and sewage that is dumped into it, but not of drugs. And as has already been mentioned in this conversation, hormones can be present in tiny concentrations and still promote a change in an organism that imbibes them.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.