The Impact of Chemicals in U.S. Waterways

drop of waterBy Claire Harding

A recent raft of studies has revealed that there are far more unregulated and dangerous chemicals and drugs in U.S. waterways than was perhaps first imagined. Experts in environmental issues have spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the water in and around Wisconsin and have discovered that there are many surprising and shocking things contained within the samples, some of which are not only unsafe for marine life, but shouldn’t be administered to humans either.

Contaminated waterways in Wisconsin

The story, which has been recently reported here at, says that researchers from Minnesota who came to test the rivers and lakes in the area found that more than 50 different chemicals were present in the samples they took and these included cocaine, traces of anti-depressants, fungicides and chemicals from anti-bacterial soaps. Not only that, but a medicine which is used to treat Parkinson’s disease and plastic components were found, too.

Out of the 50 lakes that were tested, 47 of them were found to have trace amounts of some, or all of these chemicals in there. In almost a third of the waters tested, cocaine was present as was an antibiotic drug that has only previously been given approval for use on pigs. George Meyer, the former Wisconsin DNR secretary, said that it may also be possible that there were even higher levels of chemicals in the water than they first thought and that they could be much higher than in the lakes and waterways that the scientists from Minnesota had found in the samples tested from their own state.

Whilst the levels of cocaine are not a real cause for concern and certainly not enough to affect anyone enough to either get them high or for them to become addicted, levels of other contaminants in the water are more of a worry.

The thorny problem of endocrine disruptors

Alongside all of the above mentioned drugs there is one other chemical that has been detected which is giving greater cause for alarm. They are endocrine disruptors which, when absorbed by the human body – or indeed any wildlife that happens to ingest or spend a lot of time in the water – can cause hormones within their own system to be become blocked or to have their usual functions disturbed. These endocrine disruptors are found commonly in regular cosmetic and bath preparations as well as commonly used medicines manufactured by drug companies.

The environmental impact  of this means that when aquatic, marine or avian life comes into contact with the contaminated water they are at risk of problems with their genetics and with cell mutation. It’s been reported that the following chemicals, all thought to be endocrine disruptors, have been found in the waterways tested:

  • Triclosan: This is a chemical that is found in soaps that have antibacterial qualities and also in preparations to help with acne and skin breakouts.
  • Nonylphenol: Primarily a surfactant used in cleaning, but also used in the production of plastics, pesticides and certain cosmetic products. It’s degree of water solubility solely depends on how it has been used in industry.
  • Methylparabens: It’s not widely known how toxic these are, but scientists have found that they may have a mildly estrogenic effect on human and aquatic life. Parabens are the preservative systems used in cosmetic and skin care preparations to inhibit the growth of germs and bacteria within the products so that they have a longer shelf life.

The list also contains a hormone – Androstenedione, a variant of estrogen and testosterone – which has been found, as have traces of the tricyclic antidepressant medication Amitryptiline. At the moment, scientists and environmentalists cannot fully comment on the potential or possible effects of these hormones to human life, though they are more certain about the effects on animals and fish.

Endocrine disruptors have the potential to cause problems at relatively low levels of concentration as opposed to drugs like cocaine. In fact, in their smallest concentrations, they can still cause issues with marine and aquatic life, in some cases wiping them out completely. Indeed, a 2007 study showed that residual amounts of contraceptive pills entering the water supply caused an entire population of minnows to die in a lake in Ontario. These were present at much reduced levels than some of the drugs quoted here.

What is even more concerning is that these particular chemicals are, within their own industry, largely unregulated and unmonitored, meaning that we cannot even be totally sure what the most damaging consequences of their use are likely to be until we get much further down the line – and by then, it might be too late. What is of even more concern is that a spokesman for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has said that whilst the state’s waters were more than likely to be contaminated, they had no money at all to try and either monitor the situation further or try and put it right.

This isn’t a story which is likely to get better or go away any time soon, and it’s one that it likely to cause much in the way of debate and argument over the coming months as to how, if at all, it can be resolved.

[image credit: Don Kennedy: Flickr cc]

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2 responses

  1. Great article, water scarcity is a big factor in todays world. By having polluted water systems we disrespect everyone who does not have such first world commodities. I featured this post on an amazing globally conscious community (full credit given to source and author!) If you want to see how everyone responds to such a cool topic check out the direct link to your article—>

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