This commentary appeared in vtdigger.org on February 7, 2014.
Editor’s note: This commentary is by David Deen, who is the river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council and a state representative from Putney. He is the chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
When you look at the picture, your first thought is the editor had made a mistake and placed the picture on its side. On reading the caption though you find out that the striped bass in the picture is, in fact, “standing on its tail” in a comatose state with its nose facing straight up. The fish was under the effects of an endocrine medicine added to the water.
We now face new types of pollutants known as endocrine disrupters found in certain watersheds in the U.S. It is unknown at this time if we face the problem in the Connecticut River. It is not a matter of whether these compounds are present or not but Vermont, New Hampshire and the federal government have yet to publish the results of any studies so we are ignorant of the presence or lack thereof of drugs in our river.
What are endocrine disrupters? The endocrine system inside our bodies is the network of glands excreting hormones and receptors that provide communication and controls between the nervous system and bodily functions such as reproduction, immunity, metabolism and behavior. The hormones reach all parts of the body. What is true for us is true for all animals on earth including our aquatic neighbors.
Thousands of common products contain endocrine disruptors. They mimic the natural hormones in the body. Some closely related drugs react differently to standard wastewater treatment and some do not react at all. Mirror image drugs have the same effects in humans but different reactions to treatment in wastewater processes.
Endocrine disruptors can be natural or synthetic. Some plants, including soybeans and garlic, produce endocrine disruptors as a defense mechanism. However, most endocrine disruptors are human-made chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, phthalates (used as plasticisers), alkylphenols (industrial detergents), and bisphenol A (used in packaging food), that are released into the environment unintentionally. They cause developmental and reproductive abnormalities in wildlife, and can cause birth defects, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and infertility in humans.
Many countries across the world report that disrupters play a role in the feminization of male fish. The effects reported are probably a consequence of exposure to some unintentional mixture of estrogenic chemicals. We may face situations where in certain areas there are no male fish of certain species and five-legged frogs are normal occurrences.
Several studies have shown there are health risks posed by nano particles. Manufacturers are putting these particles into skin-care products. Even worse, the FDA is allowing them to do so without adequate testing of the new technology or its consequences for human health in direct application situations and nobody is looking to see their effects in our rivers and lakes.
These new pollutants find their way into our river when people flush them into the waste water system either by natural elimination through the user or when households throw out old prescriptions and personal care products by flushing them down the sink or toilet. From there they make their way to the wastewater treatment facilities or our home leach field, where the facilities cannot treat the compounds. Unused drugs then become part of the effluent from the treatment systems.
Engineered and built beginning in the 1950s, our wastewater treatment plants were designed to deal with the pollutants of the time. We are still using that technology so our treatment technology is falling behind in dealing with modern pollutants. Untreated, the effects of these modern drugs could slip out of control if there is no response on the part of policy makers.
Regardless of your system of treating wastewater, do not flush unused drugs down the toilet or sink in your house. Mix them with mud, used cat litter or some other disgusting substance and then throw them in the trash or take them to your recycle centers hazardous waste collection day. Even rural homes that rely on an in-ground septic system can add to the problem. If you have your septic tank pumped, as you should, the liquid and the drugs in the system make their way to the wastewater treatment facility.
Take unused personal care products to your toxic collection days at your recycle center. Since manufacturers should be responsible for the drugs they produce, ask your pharmacy to take back unused drugs and return them to the manufacturer. If your pharmacy is unwilling to do that then there is one additional option.
Both Vermont and New Hampshire have instituted drug collections days. They are statewide days usually scheduled in the spring and fall when citizens can drop off unused pharmaceuticals. In 2013, Vermont collected 5,900 pounds of drugs while New Hampshire collected 11,000 pounds. Many municipalities have year-round collection sites such as the Keene Police Department, the Brattleboro Police Department and sheriffs’ offices in both states. Drop your unused drugs at these locations because those are drugs that will not make their way into our river.