Intersex fish add to concerns about pharma wastewater

pharmafile | September 20, 2011 | News story | Business Services, Manufacturing and Production Contamination, pharma manufacturing news 

Researchers in France have discovered that wild fish living downstream from a pharmaceutical production plant making steroid drugs show serious hormonal effects, including a high proportion of intersex fish showing characteristics of both genders.

The study provides further evidence that pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities can exert a significant environmental impact. For some time industry has argued that the bulk of pharmaceutical compounds found in the environment derive from excreted metabolites in human waste or from improper disposal of unused medicines, and most studies to date have focused on sewage treatment plants.

The latest study – published in the journal Environment International – is thought to be the first directly looking at effluent from a drug manufacturing plant.

The researchers tested their hypothesis by collecting wild gudgeon fish upstream and downstream of the pharmaceutical processing plant along the Dore River in the Puy de Dome area of France. As a control, they set up additional collection points downstream of a wastewater treatment facility serving the city of Vertolaye, and an upstream location.

In a 2008 sampling, 80% of gudgeons caught downstream of the pharma processing plant were intersex, compared to 5% of those sampled downstream of the urban facility, with a decline in females suggesting that a masculinising effect was taking place. Upstream the rate of intersex was around 1%.

The same pattern was observed the following year, with 56% of fish caught below the pharma plant intersex, compared to 8% of the urban catch.

While the authors note that no cause-effect relationship has been established between the changes to the fish and exposure to active pharmaceutical ingredients, “a set of evidence supports the hypothesis that these compounds induce observed adverse effects and indicates that resident fish populations from both downstream sites could disappear”, they write.

They call for more research on the environmental effects mixtures of APIs can exert, and monitoring of pharmaceutical factory discharges that take into account the health of fish and other aquatic communities.

Their findings add to a growing body of evidence pointing to the need for tighter control over pharmaceutical wastewater. Last year for example, scientists from the US Geological Survey found outflow from water treatment plants that received water from pharmaceutical factories contained 1,000 times more pharmacologically-active contaminants than outflow from control plants with no medicine-making activity upstream.

That study reinforced 2007 findings from a Swedish research team which found high levels of medicinal substances in effluent from a wastewater plant near Hyderabad in India which received water from around 90 pharmaceutical companies.

Earlier this year, Sweden’s Medical Products Agency responded to the growing concerns by asking for EU rules on Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) to be tightened up. The MPA wants additional controls to be applied to wastewater from plants making substances known to be associated with harm, such as antibiotics and hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Phil Taylor

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