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Adbusters Magazine, March-April 2005
From Prozac to perfumes, pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are
discharged down household drains in agrochemical-comparable quantities. Often
their ingredients survive sewage treatment and enter our streams and rivers, and
sometimes they return through our faucets. What will this largely unregulated
cocktail of dimly understood compounds do to our environment? What will it do to
us? Nobody knows, but a growing number of scientists demand more research and
more precaution, warning that the effects could be gradual rather than acute,
mistaken as ‘natural’ until it’s too late.
The search for discharged PPCPs started only recently, triggered by a United
States Geological Survey study and a 1999 article co-authored by EPA chemist
Christian Daughton. “Scientists looked at the same small select group of pollutants
for decades,” explains Daughton. “Anything that humans use has the potential to be
The USGS study, released in 2002, found PPCPs – and many other previously
unacknowledged pollutants – from sea to shining sea. Eighty percent of 139 urban
waterways in 30 states were contaminated; of 95 targeted compounds, they found
82, with as many as 38 occurring in a single stream. The findings were sobering.
Detecting individual compounds at low concentrations is a laborious and time-
consuming task, often requiring scientists to develop new methods of analysis. In a
sense, finding PPCPs is less an issue of their presence than our ability to measure
“There are 10,000 synthetic organic compounds that we use in our daily lives
and industry,” says USGS scientist Michael Meyer, “and we’re just looking at a
While little is known about PPCP presence, their actual effects are
Some PPCPs, including birth control pills and certain soaps, are endocrine
disruptors, which can impair hormonal and reproductive processes. Antidepressants
like Prozac can wreak reproductive havoc in fish and crustaceans, as can high blood
pressure drugs. Musks used in perfume are highly toxic, and anti-epileptic drugs –
which have been found in drinking water – can trigger cell death in developing
human brains. How such compounds work in combination is anyone’s guess.
But while these biological possibilities are recognized, scientists have yet to
identify the effects of PPCPs on aquatic ecosystems and human beings. Only in the
last two years, says Daughton, has research on effects been published, and even that
is skimpy. Such measurements are especially difficult. Impacts are likely to be
subtle – and often we don’t know what to look for.
“Very few chemical stressors have just one effect. They have effects on all
sorts of pathways in organisms, because pathways are all interconnected,” says
Daughton. “That’s why it’s almost impossible to predict what types of effects you
Current US regulations on PPCPs are inadequate. They emphasize acute
toxicity, rather than the low but pervasive concentrations found in sewer discharge.
They also overlook regional variations in concentration – some compounds may be
diffuse on average, but intense in particular locales. In coming years, more
regulation may be suggested, but both the lobbying power of chemical manufacturers
and the limitations of our monitoring capabilities make that a distant possibility.
“It’s amazing how little scientists know,” says Daughton. “That’s the
Brandon Keim is a freelance writer and former editor of
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