Reducing the Impact of Pharmaceuticals on Our Oceans

Alternative drugs could offer hope in reducing the impact of pharmaceuticals on our oceans.

It only takes a quick glance inside the medicine cupboard of your home to realise that we are becoming a pharmaceutical-dependant society. In fact, a study carried out by Mayo Clinic researchers in 2013 found that almost 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug. This dependency on drug use coupled with the fact that 41% of the world's population lives along the coastline, has led to concern within the scientific community as to how pharmaceuticals are affecting the health of our oceans.

Most drugs, once consumed, are never fully broken down within the body. They then make their way through our waste and into sewage treatment facilities before being resealed into our waterways relatively untreated. Studies have already begun to show that drugs including anti-depressants and the contraceptive pill can affect marine organisms at a concentration equivalent to less than 100 grains of sugar in an Olympic size swimming pool. These pharmaceuticals act by disrupting the endocrine system within the animals, thereby altering the way their hormones are expressed. Adverse effects have included altered swimming behaviour in amphipod crustaceans and feminization in fish.

However, a study published this month in PLOS One by researchers at Utrecht University and The University of York has pointed towards prescribing alternative natural products to help lessen the effects of pharmaceuticals on our oceans.

EMBED berberine fruit fbPlant, Berberis vulgaris. Credit: iStock.com

The team aimed to assess whether a switch from the potent anti-inflammatory drug ‘prednisolone’ to the natural alternative ‘berberine’ (a derivative of the plant Berberis vulgaris) would have a less harmful effect on the environment and therefore human health through exposure. The research group estimated the effects of both substances throughout Europe using a model based on four parameters. These addressed how both anti-inflammatories were discharged, the fate of the substances in the environment, the exposure to humans and the resulting effects on both human and aquatic life.

Their results found that after consumption, only 0.01% of the natural alternative (berberine) is excreted into the sewerage, which is approximately 2400 times lower than the 24% for the synthetic drug (prednisolone). They also found that berberine is 6 and 1.5 times less toxic to aquatic and human life respectively. Although, they have stated that because the effective dose of berberine has not yet been calculated, we cannot know for sure whether it is less harmful than prednisolone. However, berberine can be administered at six times a higher dose throughout Europe before its impact on the aquatic environment exceeds that of one prescription of prednisolone. Therefore, there is a good chance that even once the effective dose for berberine is released, it will still be a beneficial alternative for the environment.

The threat of pharmaceuticals to the environment is just as concerning as plastic pollution. But there are two main reasons as to why plastic pollution has had so much media attention over the past couple of years. The first is that plastic pollution is far more visual. It’s much easier to show the public an image of a turtle with a plastic bag around its neck than it is to show the effects of pharmaceuticals. And the second is that it’s much easier to get the public to change their lifestyle when it comes to plastic. Most people don’t care if their grocery bag is made from plastic or not and so they are more willing to change the way they live to help the environment. But it is simply unrealistic to ask the public to stop taking pharmaceuticals – something we are so dependent on. And so, the next steps need to be in not only promoting the use of ‘green pharmaceuticals’ such as berberine, but also to improve the way the drugs are handled and treated once they are at the waste treatment plants.

By Ellis Moloney, Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth

ECO Magazine is a marine science publication committed to bringing scientists and professionals the latest ground-breaking research, industry news, and job opportunities from around the world.

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