Across the nation scientists are finding traces of anti-anxiety medicines in their water supply—prescribed benzodiazepines like Alprazolam (Xanax), Adderall, Ritalin, etc. Though the traces are relatively minimal, they have been proven to affect the marine wildlife in the areas tested. Smaller fish throughout the nation are feeling the effects of the drugs and are putting themselves in risk of extinction, as the drugs increase lack of awareness.
“This isn’t work that we are doing, but other scientists around the world, in particular they are looking at the impact of anti-anxiety medicines,” says Center of Urban Waters director Joel Baker, who is also a professor at UWT.
“There has been a pretty rapid increase in prescriptions of anti-anxiety medications. Some of the chemicals—which are at a relatively low level—are affecting the behavior of the fish,” says Baker.
The chemicals that are being traced in the water are not killing the fish, but they are changing the behavior of the fish enough to put them in harm’s way.
“The reason that the behavior is important is because if you change the behavior of a wildlife species you change its behavior on how it gets its food, or even worse, being food for someone else,” says Baker.
Behavior changes in little fish are causing the fish to be less anxious and more likely to wander into territory that isn’t familiar to them.
“These are subtle changes,” says Baker, “It’s a changing in behavior that might affect the sustainability in a long period of time. It doesn’t directly affect mortality, it could in the long run though.”
The change in behavior results in smaller fish wandering into territory that is not familiar to them. The new territory creates new potential threats, such as unfamiliar, more threatening larger fish.
“The number one way you are going to die if you are a smaller fish is to be eaten by a larger fish. So, their [smaller fish] inherent behavior is to be extremely cautious and not to wander into foreign territory,” says Baker.
One of the main methods anti-anxiety pills are introduced into the water is by being flushed down the toilet. Bakers says usually when there is no need for the medicine there are one or two options, flushing them down the toilet or throwing them away.
“Until we began detecting these pharmaceuticals we didn’t think it was a problem. In fact, the instructions given to you were to flush the pills down the toilet! That was a really bad idea,” says Baker.
There are over 300 wastewater treatment centers in the state of Washington. Some of the key challenges that Washington’s Department of Ecology faces include human population growth and the need for more facilities, and the aging of the current facilities.
Unlike rural areas, where water goes through a community septic system, Tacoma runs through various sewage treatment centers where the water is recycled and filtered for public consumption.
The sewage treatment plants are built to filter out solids (human waste), nutrients, and organic matter. Baker says the plants run like they were meant to in the 1950s, but acknowledges that times have changed and something needs to be done to further contamination prevention. “Sewage treatment plants are not designed to filter out medicines like these from the water. They remove a fraction but there is still enough in there to cause effects,” he says.
While water treatment leaves a lot to be desired, there are ways people can dispose of pills responsibly. “In Washington State there are— what I call recycling centers—you can take unused or unneeded medicine to pharmacies and they destroy them. This is something that has only been around for four-five years. It will make an extreme impact,” says Baker.