Some studies show that prescription drugs exist even in the soil for our food crops.
Americans receive three billion prescriptions per year, and that number “towers over” the per capita usage in other countries. That’s according to a 2011 report titled “The U.S. Health System in Perspective: A Comparison of Twelve Industrialized Nations” by David A. Squires, a senior researcher at The Commonwealth Fund.
The tolls taken on individuals and American public health overall by over-usage is well documented. CNN.com, also in 2011, embarked on a series called “Are You Taking Too Many Meds?” The network reported on one patient who began only with anxiety meds for insomnia and then progressively developed a string of ailments. “At her worst,” she was “under the care of a general practitioner, pulmonologist, cardiologist, pain management specialist and a psychiatrist. She was spending more than $900 a month, taking 12 different types of medication, amounting to about a thousand pills a month,” according to the report. Michael Wincor, an associate professor of clinical pharmacy, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California told CNN that he calls the problem “prescription multiplication.”
And prescriptions have been multiplying in America for quite a long time. So much so, in fact, that there’s increasing concern that pharmaceutical compounds from human waste are ending up in our fields and streams. In this respect, Australia (one of the 12 countries in the Squires report), is ahead of the United States in scope of research and has been more cautious in establishing agricultural guidelines.
On May 31, 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “Australians are popping way too many pills and it is not just bad for the population, it is also increasingly bad for the environment.” The article added that “antibiotics, painkillers, heart drugs, oral contraceptives and anti-depressants are just some of the drugs being swallowed and excreted or thrown away, and they are slowly building up to “alarming” levels in river systems and marine sediments around the world, according to a new report.”
The report to which the Morning Herald refers was published by (Australia’s) National Toxics Network and warned that “the drugs are ending up in the water and soil through treated and untreated sewage being used as fertiliser, and there are no checks on accumulating levels.”
The lead author of that report, Dr. Kirstie Murdoch, added, “There is also growing evidence of the adverse impacts on human health of endocrine disruptors.” Some pharmaceuticals act on the endocrine system, such as the estrogens in oral contraceptives. Chronic exposure to low levels of such estrogens has been found to disrupt reproduction in fish. Dr. Murdoch said sewage was “being used as fertiliser on cropping lands but there were no guidelines or testing for pharmaceuticals in the fertiliser and no ‘safe levels’ have been established.”
This raises the question of what’s preferable, insufficient guidelines or none at all. Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established guidelines for use of human waste in fertilizers, many environmental groups complain that required tests don’t check for the presence of some heavy metals and pharmaceuticals.