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Exposure to fluoxetine had a bizarre
effect on male fathead minnows, who
when exposed to a small dose of the
drug in laboratories ignored females.
They spent more time under a tile,
so their reproduction decreased and
they took more time capturing prey,
according to Dr Klaper, who spoke
about her findings at a 2012 Society
of Environmental Toxicology and
She said the doses of fluoxertine added
to the fishes' water were 'very low
concentrations,' one part per billion,
which was found in some wastewater
discharged into streams. However, when
the dose was increased, but still at levels
found in some wastewater, females
produced fewer eggs and males became
aggressive, killing females in some cases.
The new findings built on Dr Klaper's
previous research which tested minnows
with the gene changes to see how well
they avoided predators. They swam
longer distances and made more
directional changes, which suggested
the drugs induced anxiety.
As reported in Environmental Health
News, changes to the brain could affect
all kinds of things in fish, Dr Klaper said.
And since humans have a similar brain
gene structure, the findings raised
questions about whether traces of these
drugs in drinking water might harm
An emerging concern
The US Environmental Protection
Agency considers pharmaceuticals an
'emerging concern,' and has concluded
that the chemicals may pose risks to
wildlife and humans.
Studies have consistently found
prescription drugs in drinking water at
parts-per-trillion levels. US Geological
Survey scientists sampled 74 waterways
used for drinking water in 25 states in
2008 and found 53 had one or more
of the three dozen pharmaceuticals
they were testing for. Some 40% of
the pharmaceuticals were found at
one or more of the sites. Fifty-four
active pharmaceutical ingredients and
10 metabolites have been detected in
treated US drinking water, according to
a 2010 EPA review.
However, according to a 2012
World Health Organization report,
the 'trace quantities of pharmaceuticals
in drinking water are very unlikely to
pose risks to human health'. The report
said that the amount found in drinking
water was usually 1,000 times lower
than doses expected to have an effect
on a person.
But Dr Klaper said that in light of the
gene changes in fish brains, officials may
need to rethink what is considered safe.
'Fish do not metabolise drugs like we
do,' Dr Klaper is reported as having
stated. 'Even if environmental doses
aren't thought to be much for a
human, fish could still have significant
accumulation, and, it appears, changes
in their brain's gene expression.'
Another study showed mussels exposed
to fluoxetine also showed increased
susceptibility to predators and a
reduction in energy stores.
The concern spreads beyond fluoxetine.
New studies show antidepressants to be
causing starlings to feed less during the
key foraging times of sunrise and sunset,
and contraceptive drugs reducing fish
populations in lakes.
A major study released late last
year found that an anti-depressant
reduced feeding in starlings and that
a contraceptive drug slashed fish
populations in lakes.
The University of York's Kathryn Arnold
who edited a special issue of the journal
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal
Society B said that with thousands
of pharmaceuticals in use globally,
'they have the potential to have potent
effects on wildlife and ecosystems'.
'Given the many benefits of
pharmaceuticals, there is a need for
science to deliver better estimates of the
environmental risks they pose.
'Given that populations of many species
living in human-altered landscapes are
declining for reasons that cannot be
fully explained, we believe that it is time
to explore emerging challenges,' such as
Research published in September 2014
revealed half of the planet's wild animals
had been wiped out in the past 40 years.
In freshwater habitats, where drug
residues are most commonly found,
the research found 75% of fish and
amphibians had been lost.
The Guardian newspaper reported a few
dramatic examples of wildlife harmed
by drug contamination had been
discovered previously, including male
fish being feminised by the synthetic
hormones used in birth-control pills
and vultures in India being virtually
wiped out by an anti-inflammatory drug
given to the cattle on whose carcasses
they feed. Inter-sex frogs -- where there
is a discrepancy between the external
genitals and the internal genitals -- have
also recently been found in urban ponds
contaminated with wastewater.
But because the pharmaceuticals were
not designed to kill -- unlike pesticides
-- the damage caused to wildlife can be
Addressing issue at the
One way to reduce the amount of
pharmaceuticals appearing in our
environment is to address the problem
at its source, according to Dr Rai
Kookana of CSIRO's Land and Water
National Research Flagship.
Dr Kookana believes prevention is better
'I think if we can manage this at the
source it is the best way to go,' he told
'Wastewater treatment is very expensive
to try to remove all compounds so it is
impractical to suggest we upgrade all
waste water plants.
'But we can add other stages to the
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