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ERIE COUNTY, OH – Water Pollution: Old Woman’s Creek Drug Residue

January 25, 2010

The “Pharmaceuticals in the Environment” article published by the NOAA (read original article from The Erie Wire), implied that a range of drugs being found in our water systems are due to improper disposal of medications and the fact that the range of drugs consumed aren’t fully absorbed by the body and go out with our waste water.

In dealing with pharmaceutical pollution, which is considered to be from a “non-point” source, it helps to step back and take a broader look at where these compounds really come from and why they are where they do not belong.

The article goes on to mention that certain “hormone-like compounds” used in agricultural practices as being the most frightening aspect of what is found in our water systems.  The trends of industrial livestock operations and the health implications that come with their abuse of pharmaceuticals has the attention of organizations around the globe.

However, under the “Uncertain Risks” section of the NOAA article, it states that

“once these compounds are in the environment, their risks…to humans are uncertain. To date, scientists have found no evidence of adverse human health effects…”

The last part of this statement is misleading.  Consider the growing concern of antibiotic resistance in flesh-eating bacteria as a national and global health issue over the last decade. Hormones are scary but doesn’t the NOAA monitor hazardous bacterias like E. coli in Lake Erie annually? While humans themselves don’t become antibiotic-resistant, the bacteria that can sicken us evolve into resistant strains that render our treatments useless.

According to the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA)(http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/Q&A/Q&A_soc.html), “When antibiotics are used in humans or animals, approximately 80 – 90% of the ingested antibiotics are not broken down, but pass through the body intact and enter the environment as waste. Thus, they retain their ability to affect bacteria and promote antibiotic resistance even after they enter the soil or water as a waste product. When manures from treated animals are used for fertilizer, antibiotics and antibiotic resistant bacteria can leech into surface and ground water, contaminating drinking wells and endangering the health of people living close to large livestock facilities.

While the antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be removed from our potable water during treatment, the antibiotics remain in our water and are in our food. Over 70% of all antibiotics used are fed to livestock, and 90% of what is given to livestock is non-therapeutic because of its effect on weight gain in order to get animals to the slaughterhouse faster. http://www.circleofresponsibility.com/page/19/poultry.htm.

The European Union has banned the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal feed, specifically those used in human medicine.  Although the United States has yet to pass similar legislation limiting antibiotics in livestock production, the FDA did ban one class of antibiotics used in poultry farming.  Based on studies showing that high levels of fluoroquinolones (drugs used to treat severe foodborne illness in humans, like Salmonella and Campylobacter) in poultry led to drug resistance in humans, the FDA finally decided in 2005 to prohibit the use of fluoroquinolones in animal husbandry.  According to the Wikipedia article on Bayer, one of the two U.S. producers of this antibiotic, Bayer refused to comply with the proposed ban and instead requested a hearing on the proposal while the other company voluntarily withdrew its product.

Bayer CropScience, a trade name of Bayer AG (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayer), was the co-sponsor of this past week’s Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association (OPGMA) Congress held at Kalahari Resort here in Sandusky.

International agricultural businesses that provide farmers with drugs being found in Old Woman's Creek are, rather, major pharmaceutical companies. This chart, provided by Dr. Phil Howard's work (assistant professor at Michigan State University), illustrates the web of connections your pharmacy, farmer and food retail store may have to agriculture.

The same pharmaceutical companies who manufacture and distribute aspirin, antibiotics and growth hormones for human treatment are subsidized for animal feed operations. Not only are their genetically-engineered crops and chemical pesticides used to produce livestock feed but they also market the non-therapeutic use of their antibiotics to make the animals “grow faster” and to compensate for the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised. Modern industrial farms are ideal breeding grounds for germs and disease. Animals live in close confinement, often standing or laying in their own filth, and under constant stress that inhibits their immune systems making them more prone to infection. (http://www.epa.ohio.gov/dsw/cafo/index.aspx – for a pdf map of CAFOs in Ohio)

The World Health Organization (WHO) concluded in 2003 that there is sufficient evidence to show that “the major transmission pathway for resistant bacteria…[is] from food animals to humans” and that this has led to “increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and increased severity of infections” In their recommendations, the WHO specifically called for stricter legislation to minimize antimicrobial usage in agriculture because it is so prevalent and may pose a significant risk to human health. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs268/en/

In recognizing the implications of the misuse of antibiotics by the industrial food system on health care reform, one of the last bills introduced by the late Senator Edward Kennedy is the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. Pew Charitable Trusts has set up www.saveantibiotics.com in order to to help promote the legislation. According to them, “If we are to reduce health care costs, we need to reduce the drug-resistant diseases that cost our country billions of dollars. This means stopping the misuse of the antibiotics our families rely on.”

While the research being done at Old Woman’s Creek may experiment with some possibilities on how to breakdown the many pharmaceutical compounds being found once they are already in nature, answers for minimizing the risks to human health in the meantime need to be addressed from the top down.

Lake Erie: This article is the first in a series that addresses persistent water pollutants which show up often in our water supply, or are being overlooked by current studies.

See: Lake Erie Water Pollutant Series

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