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Effects of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: Current and Future Perspectives

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Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are often described as emerging environmental contaminants due to relatively limited information on environmental fate and effects and the absence of environmental quality criteria. In the past few years these substances have received marked attention from the scientific and regulatory communities. PPCPs most commonly enter the environment from centralized and decentralized wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) discharges, land application of WWTP biosolids and effluents, and agricultural management practices with livestock. This presentation will provide a review of the available data on effects of PPCPs in the environment and perspectives on future challenges facing the aquatic science, regulatory and management communities.

In 2005 Brooks et al provided the first report of select human pharmaceuticals accumulating in edible tissues of fish residing in an effluent-dominated stream, which represent worst case scenarios for PPCP exposures (Brooks et al 2006). Specifically, concentrations of the antidepressants fluoxetine and sertraline were reported in the ug/kg range (Brooks et al 2005). Subsequent studies by Ramirez et al (2007) and Schultz and Furlong (2007) reported additional human pharmaceuticals in fish tissues. Other studies have recently reported a variety of personal care products in tissue, including select UV filters, synthetic musks and antimicrobial agents (Okumura et al 1996; Osemwengie et al 2003; Balmer et al 2004, 2005; Bohemer et al 2004; Mottaleb et al 2004; Nakata et al 2005, 2007; Buser et al 2006; Meinerling et al 2006). In March 2008 reports by the Associated Press of ng/L levels PPCPs in finished drinking water supplies elevated public concern and precipitated Congressional subcommittee hearings. However, risk to human health from PPCP exposure appear very low in the developed world, because environmentally realistic exposure through drinking water and fish consumption is generally much lower than therapeutic doses or normal application levels of personal care products. Markedly higher levels of pharmaceuticals have been reported in the developing world (Larsson et al 2007). In contrast to limited potential risk to humans, ecological responses to and potential effects on aquatic life uses of these substances are receiving considerable attention.

Several recent efforts have identified relative effectiveness of various treatment technologies to a variety of emerging contaminant classes. Among the most notable are two 2007 reports prepared by the Water Environmental Research Foundation (WERF 2007) entitled “Fate of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products through Municipal Wastewater Treatment Processes” and by the American Water Works Associate Research Foundation entitled “Removal of EDCs and Pharmaceuticals in Drinking and Reuse Treatment Processes.” However, prior to selecting an appropriate treatment technology to support aquatic life uses of receiving systems, it is critical that specific water quality protection goals be identified and appropriate assessment endpoints and measures of effect be selected as part of ecological risk assessments. These measures of effect often include traditional bioassay responses (e.g., Ceriodaphnia dubia survival, reproduction) in standardized toxicity tests. Brooks et al. (2003) identified that traditional test models and endpoints employed in such standardized toxicity tests (Pimephales promelas survival, growth), though they have high utility for many industrial contaminants (e.g., pesticides, surfactants, metals) and are subsequently included in existing environmental assessments of pharmaceuticals, historic development of environmental quality criteria, and routine monitoring and assessment of ambient environmental quality and effluent discharges, may be inappropriate for select emerging contaminants.

Recent concerns have been raised over potential non-target effects of PPCPs to aquatic organisms, which are amplified when the evolutionary conservation of biological pathways and receptors among species potentially exposed is taken into consideration (Huggett et al 2003; Gunnarsson et al 2008). Therefore, it may be more appropriate to assess the effects, and subsequently the risk, of these compounds by evaluating receptorspecific target endpoints in conjunction with the traditional suite of morphological endpoints, provided the receptor is present (Ankley et al. 2007, Brooks et al. 2008a, b). However it is important to note that although a number of alternative or non-standardized responses to PPCPs are appearing in the literature, these endpoints may or may not represent relevant measures of effects. A non-traditional response should be linked mechanistically to an ecologically relevant physiological consequence if it is useful as a measure of effect in ecological risk assessment (Ankley et al. 2007, Brooks et al. 2008b).

PPCP effects in the environment present an impetus towards “intelligent” water quality and environmental assessment approaches (Bradbury et al 2004), but future studies are required to assess non-standardized bioassay responses based on chemical mode of action to levels of those PPCPs most likely released from various wastewater treatment technologies. Specifically, comparative screening level risk assessments of compounds released from various treatment technologies types using traditional standardized endpoints and nontraditional endpoints should be performed for the various treatment technologies. This risk-based approach could be used to support effective management decisions regarding selection of appropriate treatment technologies for wastewater dischargers.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2008-01-01

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