Pill-popping comes back to haunt in vegetable form

CC BY 2.0 Sarai Mitnick

Prescription drugs are the gift that keeps on giving, getting locked into an endless pee-to-food-to-pee cycle that continues to contaminate our bodies through the food we eat.

Americans take a lot of pills. An estimated 70 percent of the U.S. population takes at least one prescription drug daily, while half takes two pills. One quarter of Americans take five or more pills on a daily basis, which means that the United States can claim the rather unflattering status of ‘the most pill-popping country in the world.’ (via Salon)

While Americans may enjoy the sensation of having their physical and mental woes taken care of with drugs, there is a darker underside to this pill-popping obsession. What goes in must come out, which means that all these pharmaceuticals, after doing their job inside the human body, are excreted. Urine is treated at wastewater treatment facilities, but unfortunately drugs don’t go away that easily.

Researchers at the University of Jerusalem have found that humans who eat produce irrigated with treated wastewater end up excreting higher levels of the drugs that were present in the water prior to the initial treatment, meaning that the drugs are staying in the water at detectable levels.

The study, which was published in March in Environmental Science & Technology, looked specifically at carbamazepine, an anti-convulsant drug commonly used to treat epilepsy that is “ubiquitously detected in wastewater, highly persistent in soil, and taken up by crops.”

The 34 research subjects, all based in Israel, were given two baskets of vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers) to eat. One contained vegetables that had been irrigated with treated wastewater for seven consecutive days, the other with fresh untreated water. Those who ate the wastewater-treated vegetables saw the levels of carbamazepine rise in their urine to quantifiable levels.

Ars Technica reports: “At the start, the participants had mixed levels of carbamazepine in their urine, with ~38 percent having undetectable amounts, ~35 percent having detectable amounts that were too little to quantify, and ~26 having low but quantifiable amounts. After the first week, all of the participants in the first group, which noshed on produce irrigated with reclaimed water, had quantifiable amounts of the drug and its metabolites in their urine—some of the amounts hiked up by more than ten-fold from the start. Those in group two, however, didn’t change from their initial measurements.”

The good news is that, when the people who had started out eating the treated wastewater vegetables switched to fresh water-treated vegetables, there was an immediate drop in the level of carbamazepine in their urine.

These results are worrisome. Even though the amount of carbamazepine is 10,000 times lower than what’s found in the urine of people who actively take the drug, these trace amounts can still have an effect, particularly in

“People [who have] a genetic sensitivity to the drugs, pregnant women, children, and those who eat a lot of produce, such as vegetarians. And with the growing practice of reclaiming wastewater for crop irrigation—particularly in places that face water shortages such as California, Israel, and Spain—the produce contamination could become more common and more potent, the authors argue.” (Ars Technica)

Israel, for example, irrigates 50 percent of its crops with treated wastewater. California is currently at 6 percent, but intends to increase its usage.

Pill-popping comes back to haunt in vegetable form
Prescription drugs are the gift that keeps on giving when they remain in treated wastewater and contaminate the food we eat.

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