We are a cornucopia of chemicals. At what point does that get too much?

Last time, I told you about plastics contaminating the soil and water, and causing death and destruction everywhere. But did you know that it’s not just plastics? Ironically, it could also be the very medicines designed to keep you alive and well.

If you remember from elementary school science, water does the same thing over and over again: condenses, precipitates, infiltrates, transpires, and evaporates. Although 70% of the world is covered with water, less than 3% is potable which means our water supply is very limited.

The same water that’s been on the planet since day one is still here — no more and no less — which means we’re all drinking dinosaur pee, and because of modern industrialized living, it’s just getting more degraded over time.

In the USA, there are certain Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for certain chemicals; the level above which they should not appear in drinking water. But not all chemicals have been studied, especially not in all combinations. For the most part, we’re not looking at what happens when chemicals combine because there are just too many combinations. How would you ever do control studies for all of them?

We are a cornucopia of chemicals. Some we ingest on purpose, some are thrust upon us through the air, the water, our skin via our clothing, and some come through our food. No matter how we get them, they’re a part of modern life. The manufacture of pharmaceuticals requires tons of water — at its inception, at its conclusion, and everywhere in between. It also requires pure water.

And since the earth’s water bodies and our human bodies both depend on clean water for survival, we need to make sure our interests, and water’s interests, are aligned.

What is today known as the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, started as The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 after Upton Sinclair released, “The Jungle” in 1906 which described the horribly unhygienic conditions in the Chicago stockyards.

Who worked in those stockyards? Immigrants. People who came in from another country, even though that makes life very difficult, because life back home was even worse. Then, like today, the lower socio-economic rungs of society most often have the fewest environmental protections, as well as very little say in the matter.

Today, the FDA approves drugs and is our watchdog, but its reach is limited.

The FDA doesn’t have authority to recall a product unless it’s been misbranded or adulterated. All other recalls — including for safety — are up to the manufacturer to initiate. This means that at best, the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries are self-policing and at worst — people are going to die — like with the Vioxx scandal where over 100,000 people suffered heart attacks before Vioxx was recalled.

But there’s more and that is: how are these often very powerful drugs affecting our water?

A 2009 study from the University of Exeter found hormones in the water were causing fish mutations. There’s a class of drugs known as Anti-androgens — manmade environmental chemicals that either mimic or block sex hormones.

They’re used in cancer treatments and other drugs — as well as pesticides — and they reduce fertility in male fish, causing a feminizing effect, which is a condition called Intersex. These “chemical cocktails” don’t just affect industrialised areas. According to USGS, intersex is a global issue affecting even wild-caught fish.

However, there is also some good news on the plastics front. Scientists have discovered a bacterium that eats plastic. Studies are still in the preliminary stages, but they look promising. Then there’s the worms, generally used as fish bait, which have also been found to have a taste for plastic.

And finally there’s my favourite, the plastic eating mushroom, Pestalotiopsis microspora which is a rare species from the Amazon rainforest that enjoys snacking on plastic and converting it into clean soil. It’s also tasty sautéed in olive oil and garlic! Kidding aside, Pestalotiopsis microspora is edible because somehow during the process of digesting the plastic, the mushroom removes all the toxins and converts them to clean soil.

On the legal side, on February 10, 2020, Senator Tom Udall (D — NM) and representative Alan Lowenthal (D — CA) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act which, among other things, goes after single use plastic bags: the ones with a 15-minute working life that seem to always end up in the ocean. It’s not law yet, but fingers crossed.

What if I told you there was a chemical that can cause endocrine disruption? Surprise, it’s Triclosan! It was great at killing microorganisms which is why hospitals started using it as a sterilization agent in the 1970s. Because of its effectiveness, manufacturers started adding it to soaps, toothpastes, and other products as an antibacterial agent in overwhelming numbers.

What happened next? The CDC found Triclosan present in 75% of the U.S. population’s urine samples. Its overuse had resulted in the population developing immunity to the chemical’s sterilization features, so it wasn’t so effective anymore. Further studies found when Triclosan reacts with sunlight it degrades to form dioxin in surface water. Dioxin causes cancer, reproductive problems, damages the immune system, and can disrupt hormones, and like plastic, it takes a very long time to break down.

In September 2016, the FDA issued a final rule banning over-the-counter antiseptic wash products that contained Triclosan — along with 18 other chemicals — because manufacturers had failed to demonstrate safety from long-term exposure.

The manufacturers weren’t shocked. They’d already been feeling enormous public pressure and so had begun removing Triclosan from soaps and toothpaste several years earlier.

But here’s the twist: Triclosan is also classified as a pesticide and used as a material preservative in many products such as fabrics, vinyl, plastics, and textiles which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA. Triclosan’s conditional registration was up in 2018, but at that time, EPA determined there wasn’t enough information to pull the product from shelves so Triclosan is still being studied and used.

Triclosan is a great example of overlapping regulations. When used as a beauty aid, like in antibacterial soaps, it’s regulated by the FDA because it’s a personal care product, and when used as a pesticide, it’s regulated by EPA which means we have one chemical and two different results, leaving water to sort out the mess.

Look — Plastics and pharmaceuticals help us live longer, eradicate diseases like smallpox, and hopefully, COVID, they treat cancer, provide antibacterial protections, and overall do many other wonderful things all to make life better and easier .… but easier isn’t always better when there’s chemical residue left behind.

There’s enormous pressure on our water to do everything we’re asking of it and if we don’t get our waste streams under control, instead of saving us, the very chemicals we use everyday to make life better are going to sink us, and water along with us.

If we’re going to improve recycling, we need to start with improving the coding system and get rid of the misleading advertising, but, more importantly, reduce our waste stream. Sounds to me like it’s time to skip the plastic bottle, and buy yourself a stainless steel model, and then belly on up to your safe and regulated kitchen tap and fill that baby up.

As for drugs, take your remaining drugs to places that dispose of them properly, and never ever ever flush them down the toilet. The good news is that the manufacture of pharmaceuticals requires pure water so at least our interests are aligned with manufacturers there.

It’s always good to have an ally.

Feeling helpless? Once you see everything that’s going wrong with plastics and pharmaceuticals, it’s easy to throw up your hands and give up hope. The problem’s just so big, there’s nothing you could possibly do to help…is there? Well, like many stories, this one’s going to have a hopeful ending. Before we get there, however, it’s important to know about one other substance that’s damaging the environment too. Because then we can — to use an ugly metaphor — kill three birds with a stone, instead of just one. Stay tuned for Tuesday!