Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Health Risks From Pharmaceuticals, Personal Care Products In Food

Researchers hope to measure the impacts of continuous doses of very low levels of drugs being constantly reintroduced into the environment and the food supply.

a bottle of sunscreen

Photo: comedy nose (flickr)

According to Sara Ducey, there is a lack of knowledge about how chronic secondary exposure to various drugs (including such seemingly mundane drugs as those found in sunscreen) affects humans, animals and plants. She believes too much of the research available has focused on cancer risks, leaving a myriad of other conditions in the dark.

This article is part of Earth Eats’ coverage of the 2010 Food in Bloom Conference held in Bloomington, Indiana from June 3-5, 2010. Sara Ducey presented her research “Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in Foods: Potential Risks to Human Health?” as part of a panel called “Pollution, Pesticides & Toxins: Its whats for Dinner”

Do you put on sun screen? Take Advil when you ache? Rub on calamine when you itch? If so, you are introducing PPCPs into our water system, which get into our plants, and then get back into us, even if we aren’t aching or itching anymore.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines PPCPs – pharmaceuticals and personal care products – as:

any product used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons or used by agribusiness to enhance growth or health of livestock. PPCPs comprise a diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances, including prescription and over-the-counter therapeutic drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances, and cosmetics.

Sara Ducey is a Certified Nutrition Specialist at Montogmery College in Rockville, M.D.

A Huge “I Don’t Know”

With research partner Amir Sapkota, Ducey has been reviewing the scant scientific literature that exists about PPCPs in the environment. Sapkota and Ducey hope to find some answers about the impacts of continuous doses of very low levels of drugs being constantly reintroduced into the environment.

“There’s a huge ‘I don’t know’ going on here,” she says. “(PPCPs) could be creeping up on us.”

As of 2007, the EPA had found more than 100 individual PPCPs in environmental samples and drinking water, including antibiotics, antidepressants and steroids.

These substances meander into our water systems through human and animal waste. Not all drugs completely break down in the human body, or are washed off by sweat, rain and bath water.

Biosludge And Food

Most wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to filter out PPCPs, so they end up in the treated water that goes back into our ecosystem.

PPCPs also reside in “biosludge,” which is treated sewage that is used as fertilizer on agriculture products, which we eventually will eat.

Ducey says there have been studies that found ibuprofen in lettuce and antidepressants in fish. She says the outsides of carrots tend to have more PPCPs in them than the insides, and that root vegetables are more vulnerable to the “bioaccumulation” of PPCPs than are other plants.

Fish grown in farms outside of the U.S. often eat biosludge, even untreated human feces in some instances. “Aquaculture is scary if not done well,” she says. “It might be scary anyway.”

Possible Outcomes

The main problem, according to Ducey, is the lack of knowledge about how chronic secondary exposure to various drugs affects humans, animals and plants. She believes too much of the research available has focused on cancer risks, leaving a myriad of other conditions in the dark.

Endocrine disruption, neurological issues, reproductive problems, and even changes in genetic structure are all possible outcomes of exposure to certain pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

The EPA is continuing to investigate the effects of PPCPs and what we can do about them. In the meantime, Ducey says there is not much the lay person can do besides support good science. “You can be horrified, or you can be sort of accepting,” she says. “Life is not without risk. I still eat food.”

Jessica Gall Myrick

Originally from West Lafeytte, Ind., Jessica Gall Myrick moved to Bloomington in 2002 to run cross country and track for the IU Hoosiers and never left. She has a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and a Master's in Journalism from Indiana University.

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