We All Probably Polluted a Water Body Today

May 6, 2019

You probably polluted a water body today—we all did.

In today’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist takes a look at pharmaceuticals and personal care products and their detrimental impacts.

If you are a regular listener to my program, you likely know that clean water is one of my greater concerns. We routinely mistreat our water oceans, lakes, and rivers. Sadly, the closer we look at water, the more problems we find. Furthermore, the problems we do find are not easily fixed. Well, maybe some are easier than others. Put a video online of someone pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nostril, and in no time plastic straw bans start to pop up. Business start offering paper straws, and people buy and carry reusable straws with them wherever they go. This is an example that works because, well, people can feel like they are making a difference without really having to give up anything.

There are other problems that are more far-reaching that are more difficult to address. Sunscreen is killing coral. Microplastics are polluting our lakes and oceans, even bottled drinking water. These problems would take more sacrifice, possibly stopping the use of plastic-based fleece and microfiber clothing and sunscreen. Then there is the problem of pharmaceuticals and personal care products, or PPCPs.

You have probably seen or heard public service announcements advising you not to flush your pharmaceuticals. No doubt, flushing your medications down the toilet is a direct route to our lakes and rivers. While our wastewater treatment plants are extremely advanced, carefully monitored and expertly operated, they simply cannot filter out every man-made contaminant. We have the luxury of living in the headwaters area of Wisconsin, meaning the rivers start here and flow downstream, taking any waste with them. Every community these rivers flow through adds more PPCPs, eventually taking them to the river’s end.

You may be thinking that this is a simple fix, all we have to do is not flush medicine. Sure, local law enforcement hosts a day or two a year where they take back medication, but what are people supposed to do in the meanwhile? Well, the slightly better option is the garbage. You are supposed to mix the medication with some vinegar or something else that might make them unusable, like kitty litter or coffee grounds. Then off they go to the landfill, where they will join the ooze trapped inside the clay lining of a landfill somewhere.

The problem is more complex than disposal of unused medication, though. Most of the PPCPs found in water bodies and the sediment beneath them are substances that we have likely introduced through or off of our bodies. A simple example is caffeine. People take caffeine pills, consume drinks like coffee, tea, energy drinks and soda, and some pain medications include caffeine as an ingredient. Our bodies can only process a portion of what we ingest; the rest exits our bodies in urine, and away it goes. A UW Milwaukee study of Lake Michigan offshore of Milwaukee in 2013 found over thirty kinds of PCPP in the water and the sediment, some at distances of more than two miles from shore. Caffeine was near the top of the list of most common chemicals, as were Metformin (diabetic medication) and sulfamethoxazole (antibiotics for urinary tract infections). Triclosan was also common, which is disconcerting to me. There is a chance that you are using hand soap, dish soap, mouthwash, toothpaste, body wash that has the word antibacterial or germ-fighting on it somewhere. Triclosan is added to these products and more, and is introduced from outside our bodies for virtually no reason and ends up washed into the watershed.

Wildlife and fish are suffering ill effects from PPCPs, most apparent being changing sex or having both male and female characteristics from excessive hormones in the water. While studies delving into the presence of PCPPs in water have been going on for twenty years, this problem does not get broad media coverage. Maybe it’s because it is not as visible as a straw, or maybe it is because there is no way people are going to give up their energy drinks, antibacterial soaps and testosterone pills and creams. However, it is important to remember that the chemical compounds we ingest or apply to our bodies may very well end up polluting water downstream, and fish and wildlife will pay the price.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

The photo above belongs to Raceforwater and can be found on Wikimedia Commons here.