Fish on antidepressants become anxious, antisocial and aggressive

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Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States: about 250 million prescriptions are filled every year. They are also  the highest-documented drugs contaminating waterways, which has experts worried about… fish. 

So many substances end up in the “wild water” (as in sea, ocean) and can possibly alter marine life. From estrogen in birth control to synthetic fertilizer, a wide array of drugs come out of sewage treatment plants directly into fish ecosystems. Because these plants only recently started measuring the concentration of their output on various substances, we do not know much on the subject.

The findings of a recent study on fish is a clear sign that we should learn more about it:

  • Tiny supposedly inconsequential amounts of antidepressants Prozac and Zoloft interfered with fish brain development, causing them to ignore females or worse, killing them. This does not mean it would translate exactly identically in the wild, but any changes in reproduction, eating and avoiding prey can have devastating impacts on fish population survival…
  • Logically, prescription drugs  should show up in the water at lower levels than the ones they came in at. That’s the purpose of waste treatment facilities. Yet, one of the antidepressants tested, Tegretol, came out of the plants at near constant levels, questioning the efficacy of treatment technologies, at least on certain drugs?
  • Pharmaceuticals most prevalent in fish brains were not necessarily the ones discharged at higher concentrations. Meaning that some drugs, like Zoloft and Prozac would be pseudo-persistent: the continuous exposure of organisms in a stream, even at low level, is equivalent to a chemical that is persistent.

If some drugs, known to bioaccumulate (like antidepressants, you need to take them for a while before seeing any effects), do build up in fish brains and widely alter their behavior, should we then, conversely consider the risk of these drugs coming right back at us via drinking water? And do they slowly bioaccumulate in our system too?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers pharmaceuticals an “emerging concern”, but besides 12 pharmaceuticals currently on the EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List (as possibly requiring regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act), there are no federal regulations of the compounds in waste or drinking water. Levels of drugs found in some drinking water are indeed considered too low to cause harm. But in light of the changes observed in fish brains, should we reconsider what is safely considered… safe?

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Credit photo: Michael Bentley

* Up for some thought-sharing on this topic?  

The use of certain drugs, antidepressants being a good example, reinforce the need to carefully consider one’s options before starting treatments of major health impacts. While the purpose is to help a patient, these drugs come with long lists of side effects, and this study on fish may well show that deciding to start such treatment also means deciding to start everyone on it.

  • What about more fragile populations, like babies, pregnant women, older people? Is their health even more at risk from this exposure?
  • Given the widespread availability of Over The Counter medicine, somehow encouraging self-medication, should the creation of regulations and testing methods not be a hot topic on the EPA’s list?
  • Do you find yourself quickly relying on medication in case of pain or discomfort, or do you first exhaust other means (waiting to see if it goes away by itself, resting, altering diet?)?

Let us know… 

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