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Drugs in Our Water, Hurting Our Crops

Dec 05, 2014 05:26 PM EST

Have you ever riffled through your medicine cabinet to find expired bottles and unfinished prescription regimens? You may want to get rid of them, but just tossing them in the trash is a bad idea. Research has revealed that commonly prescribed drugs leave chemicals that persist in even treated waste, and can adversely affect the crops we eat.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the Journal of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, which details how the growth of common crops like lettuce and radish plants can be influenced by even small concentrations of these drugs in their water.

"The huge amounts of pharmaceuticals we use ultimately end up in the environment, yet we know very little about their effects on flora and fauna," researcher Clare Redshaw, who co-led the study, explained in a statement.

To help address this, she and her colleagues focused their work on the effects of discarded diclofenac and ibuprofen - two of the most common and widely used group of pharmaceuticals, with more than 30 million prescribed across the world every day. They also looked at a range of other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that citizens are likely to discard.

According to Redshaw, these drugs will breakdown in waste and water, but most sewage and waste management systems are unable to remove many of the remaining compounds. And while water treatment plants ensure that these pollutants don't reach our drinking water, the same cannot be said for fertilizer, irrigation, and groundwater.

The researchers observed and recorded a number of adverse effects. Most notably, they found that ibuprofen pain killers had a significant influence on the early root development of lettuce plants, while drugs from the fenamic acid class stunted the growth of radish roots - depriving them of essential nutrients.

"As populations age and generic medicines become readily available, pharmaceutical use will rise dramatically and it's essential we take steps towards limiting environmental contamination," Redshaw said. "We haven't considered the impact on human health in this study, but we need to improve our understanding quickly so that appropriate testing and controls can be put in place."

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