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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Fish on Drugs

Marine Fisheries

Is This Your Fish on Drugs?

Scientist Proposes Studying Effects of Medications on Coastal Marine Life

By Patricia Smith
Fish Eye News
May 2008 Archive

In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibiters.

Since then, use of antidepressants has increased dramatically in the United States, according to a 2007 report by the National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2005, more than 10 percent of American women and 5 percent of American men were taking antidepressants, such as Paxil and Prozac, according to the report.

What effect might these and other medications have on marine life as they leave our bodies and travel through sewer systems into the rivers and creeks?

We don’t know, said Marine Fisheries Commission Vice-Chairman BJ Copeland.

“There’s no program in North Carolina to measure any of these products in the water,” Copeland said.

Copeland, a professor emeritus of Marine Science and Zoology at N.C. State University, wants the state to change that. With the Marine Fisheries Commission’s blessing, Copeland has set up a task force to look at the issue of endocrine disrupters in North Carolina coastal waters.

The endocrine system is the network of glands and hormones that regulate the body’s functions. Endocrine disrupters are synthetic chemicals that cause the body to either mimic or block these hormone functions.

They include serotonin, an antidepressant that has been used for years in aquaculture operations and research to control when marine life spawns, and estradiols, used in hormone therapies, birth control pills and other medications.

“The implication is that a buildup of some of these things in the water could interfere with and disrupt the reproductive capacities of fish,” Copeland said.

Preliminary results of studies in other states have found that male wildlife exposed to endocrine disrupters have smaller genitalia than those not exposed, and male fish display symptoms of sex reversal.

“This stuff out in nature is not a good thing,” Copeland said.

Until recently, the only methods for determining whether endocrine disrupters in surface waters were too expensive for government agencies. However, recent developments of instruments called gas chromatograph mass spectrometers, has made testing more affordable, Copeland said.

“We need to go and test and see if we have it,” Copeland said.

A prime candidate for a North Carolina study would be the Neuse River, because it drains from Raleigh, one of the most populated cities in the state, all the way to the coast, Copeland said.

If we found there are endocrine disrupters in North Carolina waters, we would then need to determine if the levels are high enough to cause problems for marine life, Copeland said. If they are, the state must decide how to address the problems, he said.

In order to remove these pharmaceuticals from the wastewater, municipal sewer systems would have to upgrade to tertiary treatment, which is expensive, Copeland said. It would cost trillions of dollars for all the sewer systems in the state to upgrade, he said.

A cheaper alternative would be to use engineered marsh systems, also called constructed wetlands. These artificial swamps treat wastewater by a natural biodegradation process.

“It is not a new technique, but it would require change,” Copeland said.

N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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