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Angie Hong Viewpoint: Keep pharmaceuticals out of our water

Pity the poor minnows whose highest goal in life is to avoid being eaten. It's a hard enough task in and of itself, given that just about everything -- birds, fish, turtles and even garter snakes -- will eat minnows if they have the chance. When natural systems are out of balance, though, the challenge can become impossible.

Dr. Heiko Schoenfuss, director of aquatic toxicology at St. Cloud State University, has coordinated a series of experiments involving minnows that he believes have wide-ranging implications for humans. In these studies, the researchers examine the impacts of minute concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the water, similar to what is found in the Mississippi River and a few other large lakes and rivers in Minnesota. Municipal wastewater is treated to remove bacteria, phosphorus, pathogens and other pollutants, but our current technology doesn't filter out or break down chemical compounds from medications and home care products. As a result, remnants of soaps, shampoos, over-the-counter medications and even prescription drugs we are taking, enter the municipal wastewater stream through our showers, sinks and toilets and eventually end up downstream in whatever lake or river the treatment plant discharges to. Schoenfuss uses the analogy of a drop of water in an Olympic size swimming pool, which would be roughly equivalent to 50 nanograms per liter (ng/L) of water. Field researchers routinely find traces of pharmaceuticals such as birth control, anti-epileptic medications, mood altering drugs and triclosan at concentrations less than 50 ng/L in waterways around the U.S. Even at very low concentrations, however, there is evidence that these compounds are impacting fish and other wildlife. In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study on the rate of intersex fish in nine river systems around the U.S., and during the course of their research, they found that 73 percent of the smallmouth bass they tested in the Mississippi River near Lake City, Minn., had characteristics of both sexes -- the highest recorded rate in the study. It is unknown what the implications are for us humans.

One way that local communities are working to keep pharmaceuticals out of our water is by offering disposal programs for unused and expired medications. In the past, it was standard protocol to flush old and left over medications down the toilet, but we now know that many of these medications are passing through our municipal wastewater treatment plants and into our rivers. Washington County now offers three year-round collection drop boxes in Cottage Grove, Stillwater and Forest Lake. Drop-off is anonymous and they accept a wide range of medications -- pills, capsules, blister packs, creams, gels, unused Epipens, inhalers, patches, IV bags and vials, liquids, powders and sprays. Experts estimate that 25 percent of medications are never used, so by disposing of these pharmaceuticals properly, we can help to keep them out of our water. The Sheriff's Office supports the Washington County program as well because it helps to reduce the risk for accidental poisoning, theft and drug abuse.