Fish Are on Antidepressants, Allergy Meds, and a Host of Other Pharmaceuticals

By Eliza Strickland | March 26, 2009 8:49 am

pills medicationThe fish living in rivers around American cities are being medicated, like it or not. A broad new study of fish in five metropolitan areas has shown that fish are contaminated with a cocktail of prescription medications, including pharmaceuticals used to treat depression, bipolar disorder, allergies, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Researchers say this new form of pollution, a consequence of our medicated society, may have environmental or health consequences that aren’t yet understood.

Pharmaceuticals end up in drinking water—and in fish—when people take medications and residue passes through their bodies into the sewers. Conventional sewage and drinking water treatment filters out some substances, or at least reduces the concentrations [Chicago Tribune]. But pharmaceutical traces make it through the sewage processing and end up in river water. When fish take in the water through their gills, the chemicals accumulate in their livers and other tissue.

For the new study, published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, researchers studied fish from rivers near Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Orlando, and Philadelphia, and found traces of seven different drugs and several cosmetic chemicals from soaps. Not a single fish in the control site of New Mexico’s Gila River Wilderness Area tested positive [Scientific American]. 

The medicated fish aren’t thought to pose a threat to fishing enthusiasts: A person would have to eat hundreds of thousands of fish dinners to get even a single therapeutic dose, [study coauthor Bryan] Brooks said. But researchers including Brooks have found that even extremely diluted concentrations of pharmaceutical residues can harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species because of their constant exposure to contaminated water [AP]. The new findings have prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to expand the survey to 150 other sites around the nation.

In previous studies, trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals have been detected in drinking water provided to at least 46 million Americans. The EPA has called for additional studies about the impact on humans of long-term consumption of minute amounts of medicines in their drinking water, especially in unknown combinations. Limited laboratory studies have shown that human cells failed to grow or took unusual shapes when exposed to combinations of some pharmaceuticals found in drinking water [AP].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Fish on Prozac
DISCOVER: Wastewater Decimates Minnows

Image: iStockphoto

  • Roberto Ruth

    Sometimes I’m just flat out ashamed to be a human being.

  • That Guy

    Roberto Ruth speaks truth

  • Chris

    how would you fix this? people can’t stop taking their pills or peeing, so I guess you’d have to improve the filtration systems?

  • This girl

    Can’t forget about estrogen disrupting chemicals making there way into the water… EDCs have a KNOWN effects on fish.

  • This girl

    endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s)… not estrogen… my bad

  • chris

    Lucky fish getting free drugs.

    J/K, somebody paid for them.

    Ok humor aside ya this is probably not a good thing. Perhaps the necessary step is to kind of seperate the human environment from the animal environment, I find it doubtful we’ll ever live in harmony with nature; As that is not in our nature.

  • theBuckWheat

    What counts is the level of contamination and sadly, such articles, while useful, hardly ever publish what “traces” are found. This information makes the difference between a theoretical, but inconsequential risk and a real one.

    This story is not going away. The technology doesn’ t even exist to eliminate these drugs from waste water. The pharma industry is not yet trying to formulate drugs that are completely broken down when metabolized. The only response can be to drink purified water when possible. Be prepared for the Mainstream Media to pick up this story someday and hype it to Mars, creating a public panic and outcry. This implies that investment in shares of companies in water purification will be a good one.

  • rRootagea

    The article does not mention any ill effects of pharmaceuticals on fish, it just says there are minute traces. Duh, take a glass of wine dump it in the ocean and there’s enough atoms in there so that another random glass of the ocean will contain one.

    It is true that fish and amphibian populations are dying, but that might be due to, i don’t know, legitimate toxic pollution. AA batteries does not into the water go.

    Points out the human-centric concern of “ooh im getting high from druugs in the water” ; Faced with the prospect of drinking out of an river and the viagra molecule would probably be the least of your concerns

  • Karen James

    The word ‘traces’ is vague but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. Endocrine responses in animals (including humans of course) <a href="$=activity&recordid=1238416838787320"can be acutely sensitive to low doses of endocrine disruptors.

  • Karen James

    Hmm, it cut of my last comment mid-sentence. It should have continued
    …can be exquisitely sensitive to low doses of endocrine disruptors.
    and this was supposed to be linked to:$=activity&recordid=1238416838787320

  • chaney

    people can’t stop taking their pills or peeing, so I guess you’d have to improve the filtration systems?

  • Vaguery

    I have issues with this. It is possible, we do have the technology that is, to take out all of the pharmaceuticals from the water. It’s just not practical and affordable.

    Plus, I wish this article gave frames of reference for how much pharmaceutical remnants are going into the water these fish are swimming in. “Trace” is really vague. A “trace” amount of LSD, say 100 micrograms can give someone a bad trip. 100 micrograms of sugar is..well..something a fat man can breathe on you if he happened to have had a few donuts earlier.

    I’m a always mildly disappointed when I go for a scientific article and they don’t give details or frames of reference.


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