Thursday, December 23, 2010
Pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment: agents of subtle change
During the last three decades, the impact of chemical pollution has focused almost exclusively on the conventional "priority" pollutants, especially those acutely toxic/carcinogenic pesticides and industrial intermediates displaying persistence in the environment. This spectrum of chemicals, however, is only one piece of the larger puzzle in "holistic" risk assessment. Another diverse group of bioactive chemicals receiving comparatively little attention as potential environmental pollutants includes the pharmaceuticals and active ingredients in personal care products (in this review collectively termed PPCPs), both human and veterinary, including not just prescription drugs and biologics, but also diagnostic agents, "nutraceuticals," fragrances, sun-screen agents, and numerous others. These compounds and their bioactive metabolites can be continually introduced to the aquatic environment as complex mixtures via a number of routes but primarily by both untreated and treated sewage. Aquatic pollution is particularly troublesome because aquatic organisms are captive to continual life-cycle, multigenerational exposure. The possibility for continual but undetectable or unnoticed effects on aquatic organisms is particularly worrisome because effects could accumulate so slowly that major change goes undetected until the cumulative level of these effects finally cascades to irreversible change--change that would otherwise be attributed to natural adaptation or ecologic succession. As opposed to the conventional, persistent priority pollutants, PPCPs need not be persistent if they are continually introduced to surface waters, even at low parts-per-trillion/parts-per-billion concentrations (ng-microg/L). Even though some PPCPs are extremely persistent and introduced to the environment in very high quantities and perhaps have already gained ubiquity worldwide, others could act as if they were persistent, simply because their continual infusion into the aquatic environment serves to sustain perpetual life-cycle exposures for aquatic organisms. This review attempts to synthesize the literature on environmental origin, distribution/occurrence, and effects and to catalyze a more focused discussion in the environmental science community.