News Brief

Ibuprofen Side Effects May Include Stunted Produce, Infertile Otters

From our bodies into wastewater, and back into our water supplies, pharmaceuticals are disrupting biological processes in plants and animals.

Researchers suspect that pharmaceuticals building up in otters’ fur are to blame for their recent low reproductive rates.

Credit: Mike Baird License: CC BY 2.0
All that Advil we take for small aches and pains is adding up in our wastewater, says new research, and it’s affecting wildlife, the plants we eat, and even the water we drink.

Levels of ibuprofen currently found in the environment significantly hamper early root development of lettuce plants, according to research led by the University of Exeter Medical School and Plymouth University in the U.K., and another common anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, affects the growth of radish roots. Our food is exposed to these drugs in the largest doses when sewage sludge is used as fertilizer or when wastewater is used for irrigation, but even when wastewater is treated, antibacterial drugs and anti-inflammatory drugs typically have low rates of removal.

That means these pharmaceuticals build up in our waterways, and otters, for one, may be suffering as a result. A separate report commissioned by the environmental advocacy organization CHEM Trust finds the fur of wild otters inhabiting rivers in the U.K. is routinely contaminated with ibuprofen and diclofenac, which have acted as endocrine disruptors in lab studies and may be to blame for the otters’ reproductive abnormalities. 

CHEM Trust says that people should be concerned about pharmaceuticals too, given that up to 30 drugs have been detected in tap water in the U.S. Though the drugs are usually present at very low levels, researchers are uncertain about how these drugs interact with each other and what their long-term effects on human health may be. Improved sewage treatment plants may be part of the solution, according to CHEM Trust, but the risk might also be added rationale for composting toilets, which tend to give microbes more of a chance to break down pharmaceuticals; veterinary antibiotics and certain human drugs like Probenecid have been shown to degrade most effectively after being exposed to aerobic composting.

Published January 25, 2015

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