Published on 03/15/02

Scientist Studying Drugs in Georgia Streams

Prescription drug use is on the rise in the United States. Because of this, you might be surprised to learn what's in your local river or drinking water, says a University of Georgia scientist.

A new study has started at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to find out just how much of a certain type of drug is in Georgia's waterways, said Marsha Black, a CAES environmental health scientist.

Popular Drugs

Photo:Brad Haire

Prozac belongs to a certain type of drug that might be loose in the environment.

Along with former CAES scientist Kevin Armbrust, Black will look for five popular antidepressants known collectively as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. You may know them as Prozac, Luvox, Paxil, Celexa or Zoloft.

SRRIs have been available only for the past few years. They're effective in treating a number of conditions, such as depression, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder and premenstrual syndrome.

The Environmental Protection Agency has become very interested in these drugs, she said. SRRIs share a lot in common with chemicals like pesticides that are known to be present in and toxic to the environment.

If you use a sensitive enough instrument and look in the right direction, she said, you can find these chemicals.

"Evidence from Europe says it's getting in the drinking water," Black said. "Europe is light years ahead of us (on this research)."

Environment? How?

Photo:Brad Haire

Prescription drugs could be getting into Georgia streams.

How do the drugs get into the environment?

"They'e excreted by the people taking them therapeutically," she said.

The drug goes in human waste through the sewerage system to wastewater treatment plants. Then the treated water is discharged into the environment.

Sometimes the drug passes through the body in its original form or in some broken-down form.

Sometimes, when an organism metabolizes a drug, a glucose molecule may get attached. With the attached glucose, the drug can pass through the system quicker. When it gets into the environment, the glucose molecule can be lost. That leaves the original drug loose in the environment.

But little is known about how these drugs affect the environment in the United States. Black hopes to change that.

Much like the way pesticides and other chemicals are tested, she'll put these drugs through a battery of environmental tests in the lab.

Black will work with a Georgia city's wastewater treatment facility. She'll test water samples before and after the wastewater treatment to find out if and how much of the drugs are present. Then she'll compare that to the amount of SRRI drugs used in that area.

Cause for Concern

The study may show that these drugs degrade quickly in the environment and should be of no concern. Or it may prove that there is a public safety issue here that needs to be addressed, she said.

Her research has already shown Prozac to be deadly in the parts-per-billion range to water fleas, a small microcrustacean widely used to study water quality. This is reason for concern, she said.

The study will be conducted over the next three years with a $500,000 EPA grant.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.