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Looking at Risks Posed by Drugs in the Environment

By Eddy Ball
December 2008

Photo of Hal Zenick, Ph.D. at the NCSOT meeting
Zenick, shown addressing the NCSOT meeting, underscored regulators’ need for more data about the health effects of pharmaceuticals and personal care products diluted in drinking water. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Photo of Ken Olden, Ph.D.
Olden is busy at his new job setting up the nation’s first urban school of public health at the City University of New York. However, he has remained active in the Research Triangle environmental public health community. (Photo courtesy of Harvard University)

In October and November, NIEHS helped support two scientific meetings investigating the potential threat to human health of pharmaceuticals and personal care products present in the environment.

On October 23, the Institute hosted the half-day North Carolina Society of Toxicology (NCSOT) ( NIEHS Fall Meeting in Rodbell auditorium, which featured talks on the topic of “Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment.” Two weeks later, with joint sponsorship by NIEHS, on November 10 – 11 the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative (RTEHC) gathered 150 experts and stakeholders at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. for a two-day summit on “Pharmaceuticals in Our Water: What We Know, What We Don’t Know and What We Should Do.”

Concerns about the health effects of pharmaceuticals in drinking water accelerated with a series of reports in Spring 2008 that treated drinking water in Philadelphia, northern New Jersey, San Francisco and Washington tested positive for traces of prescription drugs. Despite some evidence of adverse effects in fish, amphibians and insects, the threat to human health of such drugs as antibiotics, mood stabilizers and sex hormones diluted in drinking water remains unclear.

Both meetings featured keynote talks by Hal Zenick, Ph.D., director of EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory (NHEERL), who discussed the scientific background ( NIEHS of the issue of pharmaceuticals in the environment (PiE). At the larger RTEHC meeting, Zenick was joined by colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey, EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and England’s Brunel University who offered their perspectives on the scientific and regulatory issues involved.

NIEHS grantee Richard Di Giulio, Ph.D., of Duke University and scientists from North Carolina state agencies, the University of North Carolina, GlaxoSmithKline and other organizations spoke during the RTEHC summit. Investigators from Baylor University, EPA and Sygenta Crop Science gave presentations for attendees of the NCSOT meeting.

Speakers at both meetings called for more data and careful interpretation to assess the dangers posed by PiE. There was a general agreement that physicians, pharmacists and patients need to be educated about responsible prescribing of drugs and disposal of pharmaceuticals. In addition, governments have an obligation to assign specific responsibilities to agencies regulating and monitoring PiE.

The NCSOT holds annual spring and fall meetings, which have convened in NIEHS and EPA facilities on their RTP campuses in recent years. Many of the chapter’s members will also attend the 48th Annual Meeting and ToxExpo of the Society of Toxicology ( NIEHS to be held in Baltimore, Md. March 15–19, 2009.

The RTEHC summit is the organization’s kickoff event. As the group’s chairman, NIEHS Director Emeritus Ken Olden, Ph.D., described the organization, RTEHC is committed to “provid[ing] a neutral forum to host candid discussions and to provide advice on the most significant issues facing environmental health and related public policy.” RTEHC executive committee members envision the organization as hosting annual environmental health summits; serving as a clearinghouse and promoter of seminars, workshops and conferences occurring at various public and private organizations; and assisting organizations by facilitating meetings and by enhancing collaborative ventures.

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