August 14, 2013

Horse 1528 - Flushed With Pride

Drug, drug, I'm on the drug. I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix
- TISM, (He'll Never Be An) Old Man River.

SBS1 recently ran a documentary series from the BBC, hosted by Michael Mosley; entitled "Pain, Pus & Poison" (Link from SBS: . I found it really quite intriguing if a little gory (I can't stand to see the insides of people). It got me thinking though, it's all very well to be putting pills and poisons into our bodies to help cure us of diseases and ailments, but the human body is not an entirely efficient machine.
Even if the drug someone took worked absolutely perfectly, there must be at least some trace of it passing through someone and out... the other end. What happens to those drugs if you were to multiply that by a factor say five million people in a city the size of Sydney? Where do all those lovely chemicals go? Presumably they take a free trip Malabar and Bondi.

The news a few days ago showed a... "thing" in the sewers of London which was the size of a bus and made of grease, fat, sanitary pads, baby wipes, as well as collecting the residue of poos and wees.
Amusingly as if to sugar coat the news (bad choice of metaphor, I know), it was given the nickname of the "Fatberg", as if that would somehow make the story more palatable (again, bad choice of metaphor).
If that sort of thing can accumulate in the sewers, what of all the hormone replacement drugs, pain killer medicines, anti depressants, opiates, barbiturates, cannabinoids , not to mention all the caffeine that we collectively like to pour down our throats in the form of tea, coffee and increasingly, energy drinks? All of those drugs don't simply disappear into a void but through us, down our sewers and finally into our oceans and I'm willing to bet that they'd have a much bigger effect on a 2kg fish or a 660fg bacteria than a 70kg person (the ocean though does dilute things on a massive scale). The LD.50 for a little fish or bacteria is far far smaller than even the smallest of a person, just on a sheer matter of scale.
If you don't believe that the problem is real, consider this abstract from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health:
Caffeine has been detected in Boston Harbor seawater with concentrations ranging from 140 to 1600 ng l(-1), and in Massachusetts Bay seawater at concentrations from 5.2 to 71 ng l(-1). Sources of caffeine appear to be anthropogenic with higher concentrations in the seawater of Boston's inner harbor and in freshwater sources to the harbor. 
- Siegener R, Chen RF. Environmental, Coastal and Ocean Sciences Department, University of Massachusetts at Boston, May 2002.

We already know that agricultural runoff like Phosphates and Nitrates are known to cause blooms of algae, which in turn deoxygenate vast areas of coastal zones, thus killing fish populations; and industrial runoff has vast effects in the oceans but I couldn't really find any mass studies into the effects of our drug use washing into the ocean.
Chemicals which aren't explicitly designed to have effects on living things like Mercury, build up in the environment and can radically alter the way that fish and animals' brains work. Mercury is a known neurotoxin and has a cumulative effect; especially as it works its way up the food chain.
What effect would something like Penecillin have for instance? Would the micro flora of ecosystems be destroyed? How about anti-bacterial drugs? If they're designed to kill bacteria in the human body, that's all well and good but out in the oceans, are they breaking food chains?

Toilets and sewers are wonderful things because they remove us from our own waste products and send them far far away. When we do send our problems far far away, they become like rich kids sent away to boarding school: they grow up, they become bigger and they have the potential to harm us. The adage "out of sight, out of mind" is appropriate here because it suggests the idea that something is easily forgotten or dismissed as unimportant if it is not in our direct view and from both an aesthetic and hygienic point of view, that is the entire point of sewerage systems.
The point is that if we flush stuff away because it's bad for us, then it also follows that what we inadvertently flush away which was once good for us, might not be so good for the things living in the ocean.

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