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Allison Walter

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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?

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    May 4 2012: I think pharmaceutical drug companies and the administrations that regulate their use should consider the drugs impact on the environment. Currently administrative companies only assess the impact of the drug on our bodies, not the impact of drugs on waterways and ecosystems. Although this would increase the development cost of the drug and therefore increase its price, its necessary to keep our ecosystems and corresponding services intact. As citizens, we should pressure the FDA into instigating new regulations in support of eco-friendly drugs. The drugs with negative impacts on biodiversity should be restricted from public use.
    This is not to say that drug companies are the only one to blame. In order to change things, we need to cut down our own consumption. There now seems to be a drug for every problem we face. If we decided to let our body solve some of the minor sicknesses and pains by exercising and eating right, we would greatly reduce the amount of drugs in our waterways.
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      May 5 2012: I'm going to be optimistic and propose that addressing your first solution (testing drugs for environmental effects) might also tackle your second (reducing our obsession with medicating ourselves) by making drugs more expensive. As a society, we like to think in terms of money. If something is cheap, we use a lot of it because, well hell, we can afford to. I think the rise in price that would come as a result of testing these drugs cannot be understated. Although there are moral fallacies with testing drugs on human subjects, we can go through great pains to test on animal subjects (another moral fallacy in my opinion) where we can monitor the effects in a closed system. Checking for environmental damages, however, may prove to be a more difficult task as there are seemingly infinite ways a drug can alter an ecosystem. That being said, our consumption seems to be a major factor. Pharmaceuticals, from a human health standpoint, are not inherently bad, but our mistreatment of them is. I agree with you. I think breaking our ridiculous obsession with drugs may have to begin with a greater emphasis on treating the causes of the diseases these drugs fight. That generally means leading much healthier lives; a concept western culture has been losing grasp of.
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        May 5 2012: Increasing the price of "drugs" is not the answer. Pharmaceutical companies make astronomical amounts of profit! The money is already there to put into environmental assessments, it just isn't a requirement (and it should be). I completely agree that we live in a pill popping world, but raising prices isn't fair for those that actually need to medicate. People should be educated about the harmful risks of improper disposal of old/unwanted prescriptions when they pick them up. Pharmacies should implement a "buy back" program where patients can receive credit towards their next purchase if they bring back unused medication (like ink cartridges and car batteries!). Doctors need to stop prescribing drugs for health issues that can be treated with diet/exercise/lifestyle changes. There are many small and large steps that could be taken to aid in the preservation of the environment besides putting more financial burden on consumers.
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          May 5 2012: Well ideally, the money would come out of the pharmaceutical company's profits. And I know first hand the financial burdens that prescriptions place on families when they actually need to be taken. I suppose I was referring mostly to the already cheap drugs, thus my comment about abusing drugs simply because they are cheap, but that was my fault for not being specific. I think a buy back program would be incredibly beneficial but ultimately only effective for the higher priced prescriptions; the prescriptions that consumers tend not to pour down the drain because they are expensive to replace. We live in a reckless society that, once again, thinks in terms of money. Most over the counter drugs are not necessary for survival. There definitely needs to be an education program that will teach people about the negative effects of drugs on the environment, but I'm skeptical to believe that it will be received well.

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