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Prescription Drugs Entering the Great Lakes at Alarming Rate

Prescription Drugs Entering the Great Lakes at Alarming Rate

By Brian Bienkowski

Only about half of the prescription drugs and other newly emerging contaminants in sewage are removed by treatment plants. That’s the finding of a new report by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a consortium of officials from the U.S. and Canada who study the Great Lakes.

The impact of most of these “chemicals of emerging concern” on the health of people and aquatic life remains unclear. Nevertheless, the commission report concludes that better water treatment is needed.

“The compounds show up in low levels—parts per billion or parts per trillion—but aquatic life and humans aren’t exposed to just one at a time, but a whole mix,” said Antonette Arvai, physical scientist at the IJC and the lead author of the study. “We need to find which of these chemicals might hurt us.”

More than 1,400 wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. and Canada discharge 4.8 billion gallons of treated effluent into the Great Lakes basin every day, according to the study.

The scientists reviewed 10 years of data from wastewater treatment plants worldwide to see how well they removed 42 compounds that are increasingly showing up in the Great Lakes.

Six chemicals were detected frequently and had a low rate of removal in treated effluent: an herbicide, an anti-seizure drug, two antibiotic drugs, an antibacterial drug and an anti-inflammatory drug. Caffeine, acetaminophen and estriol (a natural estrogen) also were frequently detected in sewage but had high removal rates.

The wastewater plants had a low removal rate (less than 25 percent chance of removing 75 percent or more) for 11 of the 42 chemicals.

“The weight of evidence suggests that at least half of the 42 substances examined in the present study are likely to be removed in municipal wastewater treatment plants,” the authors wrote.

Wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. and Canada discharge 4.8 billion gallons of treated effluent into the Great Lakes basin every day.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal compound found in some soaps, toothpastes and other consumer products, has proven acutely toxic to algae and can act as a hormone disruptor in fish. Triclosan was found frequently, according to the new report and plants had “medium removal efficiency.”

Also, the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac bioaccumulates in fish, but its impact is unclear, said Diana Aga, a chemistry professor and researcher at the University of Buffalo who studies emerging chemicals in the Great Lakes.

Aga said even without knowing exact impacts, consistently seeing antibiotics show up in effluent is concerning.

“Even at low levels you don’t want to have people ingest antibiotics regularly because it will promote resistance,” she said.

Chemicals’ showing up in wastewater effluent doesn’t necessarily mean they will be found in drinking water. But some studies have found prescription drugs in drinking water at parts-per-trillion levels. A federal study of 74 waterways used for drinking water in 25 states found 53 had traces of one or more pharmaceuticals.

There are currently no federal regulations of pharmaceuticals in waste or drinking water. However, 12 pharmaceuticals are currently on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of chemicals under consideration for drinking water standards.

Most researchers expected that the large lakes would dilute pharmaceuticals quickly, but a study this summer found the drugs contaminating Lake Michigan two miles from Milwaukee sewage outfalls. 

It’s important to not place blame squarely on wastewater treatment plants, said Michael Murray, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center who is on the IJC’s board.

“They weren’t designed to handle these types of chemicals,” Murray said. “And most municipalities in the Great Lakes are under tight budgets and they’re just doing what they can to meet requirements.”

Most plants use activated sludge treatment, which uses bacteria to break down solids that come in from the wastewater. Since the chemicals come into the plants at such low levels, many of them readily break down, said Allison Fore, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

Other newer technologies, such as ozonation or carbon filters, also are effective at removing pharmaceuticals and other new chemicals but are expensive, Arvai said.

Previous research has linked other drugs in fish to slower reaction times to predators, altered eating habits and anxiety.

Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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