Can We Trust Big Pharma on Biological Pollution?
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Can We Trust Big Pharma on Biological Pollution?


A new United Nations report warns of an unimaginable catastrophe from pharmaceutical drugs entering the environment through wastewater treatment plants.  With all the news and rhetoric focused on either immigration or RussiaGate, a new menace seems overlooked by Trump administration officials.

“Drugged waters – how modern medicine is turning into an environmental curse,” tells the potential negative effects pharmaceutical companies may be having on the freshwater sources on which we depend for our existence. According to the science, new research suggests that exposure to pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in drinking water may affect human reproductive systems too. The report cites a 2017 UNESCO study pinpointed municipal wastewater treatments plant effluents, and found that:

“Only nine out of 118 assessed pharmaceuticals were removed from wastewater during the treatment processes with an efficiency of over 95 percent, and nearly half of the compounds were removed only partially with an efficiency of less than 50 percent.”

What this means is, typical wastewater treatment facilities are not geared to prevent complex chemical compounds from entering the freshwater chain. The research on the Baltic Sea region from the study is extensive, but a randomly selected anti-seizure drug known as Carbamazepine was detected in high concentrations in 60% of the samples of seawater and sediment were taken. Other drugs such as analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, and Chemotherapeutic agents and X-ray contrast media were studied as well. Readers may observe the findings for themselves here. Turning to domestic production in the United States seems a prudent diversion from the overall picture here.

To find out the potential dangers in America for polluted effluents, I randomly selected Bristol-Myers Squibb‎, since it is the first large company appearing on any list of pharmaceutical companies based in and producing drugs in the U.S. Since Bristol-Meyers has so many domestic and overseas manufacturing operations, I chose to focus on Devens, Massachusettes, since this center is the largest capital investment in the company’s history ($750 million).

The company only takes ordinary precautions by their own admission as we can tell from their statements on wastewater effluents:

“We have corporate standards and guidelines in place to ensure that our facilities meet or exceed local requirements regarding the treatment and management of wastewater effluents. We measure parameters that are widely accepted globally as contributing to water quality degradation, either in the form of depleted oxygen levels (total suspended solids and chemical oxygen demand) or toxicity to human and aquatic life (nitrates), to determine discharge of general pollutants.”

This is corporate PR fencing in the full knowledge that ordinary wastewater treatment using depleted oxygen; nitrate levels are not sufficient. “General pollutants” goes still further in indemnifying the company against lawsuits.

In as far as I can tell, the Devon plant utilizes a modular wastewater pretreatment unit with a  530,000 gallon per day capacity for treating the effluent of the bioreactors. However, though the facility seems capable of effective biological treatment, I see no mention of measuring or neutralizing complex chemistry in the effluent. I could not find the full documentation on the new Devon plant, but the Hach company released some PR about their efforts to help the measure and mitigate dissolved oxygen in the Syracuse, New York plant.

Back in 1992, Bristol-Meyers Squibb made the wrong kind of environmental history when the company pleaded guilty to discharging chemicals into a lake next to the same Syracuse, New York facility. You can read that story in the New York Times archives here. The point I am making is dreadfully simple. Dissolved oxygen and other standard wastewater testing do not mitigate the dangers of complex compounds like those tested for in the UNESCO study. And Bristol Meyers Squibb has R&D and manufacturing facilities from Anagni, Italy to Seattle, Washington.

To expand on this report, the reader should consider the dozens of companies manufacturing these compounds. There’s Eli Lilly and Company, Pfizer, Merck & Co., and dozens more. Of course, the industry plays the PR game in trying to marginalize warnings about the actual discharge of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) into the environment, but studies like this one bring out other facts. For one, the discovery of “diclofenac residues in cattle carcasses as the cause for the vulture population collapse in India and Pakistan taught us that exposure routes are not always predictable.” To cite another report on the potential effects of pharmaceutical waste:

“There have been links to the feminization of male fish from the effects of female birth control pills in the water systems. A recent study looked at the effects pharmaceuticals were having on shellfish and found membrane malformations and reproductive difficulties.” 

So, the question arises, Should we be scrutinizing more closely the pharmaceutical industry in an America the Trump administration is busy deregulating? My answer is simple.

China is.

Author: Winston Smith