A series of recent studies suggests that pharmaceutical factories are not as careful with their waste as they should be, Nature reports. First, a 2009 study found high levels of bioactive ingredients in treated waste being released from a wastewater-treatment plant in India. Last year, investigations of two water-processing plants in New York revealed similar events. And now, new evidence published in Environment International suggests bioactive drugs are also making it into the waterways in France, and that they are affecting the fish populations in the local rivers.
Specifically, the new study, commissioned by the French environment ministry after the sighting of some abnormal fish, examined wild gudgeons (Gobio gobio) in a river near a Sanofi-owned facility that manufactures steroid compounds. The researchers found that downstream of the factory’s discharge, the gudgeons were largely “intersex,” with as many as 80 percent of fish containing both male and female sexual characteristics, whereas upstream of the factory, only 5 percent of the fish showed these abnormal qualities.
Testing the water, the researchers found high concentrations of an anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant called dexamethasone, a diuretic called spironolactone, which is known to block the effects of male sex hormones, and another diuretic called canrenone. "This is a real problem," Wilfried Sanchez, an ecotoxicologist at the French National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks, and lead author of the study, told Nature, noting that such abnormalities may affect the fish’s ability to breed, and could have subsequent consequences for the entire river ecosystem.
The findings are raising the issue of oversight regarding the disposal of bioactive chemicals. According to Nature, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and France all have no regulations “limiting the concentrations of pharmaceuticals released into the aquatic environment in either municipal wastewater or in effluent from manufacturing facilities.” The European Commission is now considering placing such limits for certain drugs that have turned up in rivers and streams around pharmaceutical plants, and is expected to announce its decision later this year.