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Farm Antibiotics, Growth Drugs, Found In U.S. Waterways


By James Donahue

November 2004


Bad enough that the drugs we humans are taking are being passed through our excrements and making their way into our drinking water.


Now, in addition to the antibiotics, the blood pressure medications, birth control pills, the tranquilizers, hormones, heart medicines and sexual stimulants passing through this nation of pill poppers, authorities say they also are finding antibiotic drugs used for enhancing animal growth, preventing disease and increasing feed efficiency in farm animals.


A study designed to identify antibiotics in waterways that come from both human and animal users, is the first to find drugs specifically used in farm animals.


The study looked for traces of the antibiotic monensin, used only to enhance growth in cattle, in waterways located near animal feeding operations. The results were shocking. In some cases the concentration of the drug was from 20 to 1,000 times greater in stream sediment than in the water.


Ken Carlson, the principal investigator in the study, said the discovery raises three primary concerns. He said there is a potential toxic danger to fish, plants and other aquatic organisms. There also is a concern that the drugs will affect humans who consume them in drinking water, since existing water treatment plants are not equipped to eliminate them.


The final and most disconcerting worry is that the types of animal and human antibiotics getting in the water are contributing to the emergence of new strains of drug-resistant disease bacteria.


The two-year study, a collaborative work by the Federal Drug Administration and Colorado State College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is not only looking for drugs in waterways, the group is attempting to find ways to control them.


For example, the Colorado State group is working with area cattlemen in an effort to identify the best management practices to minimize the release of these drugs into the environment, said cooperative investigator Amy Pruden.


Pruden said it is believed these compounds get in waterways because only a fraction of the drugs are metabolized by both animals and humans. This means active compounds pass through the body and are discharged into public wastewater systems. Because the compounds are still active, they become an environmental issue.


Thus the very real threat grows that the water we drink, that we use for cooking and bathing, is saturated with minute traces of uninvited narcotics that are collectively affecting our health.


Even though we are aware of this problem . . . we are not sure a solution can be found. The complex system of human and animal waste disposal, involving home and farm septic tank processing, municipal lagoon and chemical processing plants, have no way of separating these drugs from the water that eventually finds it way back into the lakes, streams and ground water supplies.


The best solutions, it seems, would include either reducing the amount of narcotic use or sending all human and animal extrement to toxic waste dumps.


But drug companies will not want to give up their big profits so getting us all off the drug machine probably won't be considered. Could enough disposable land be found in this overpopulated and polluted world?


Will anybody even try to find an answer?


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