Monitoring Drug Pollutants in the Great Lakes Through Mussels

Jenn Hoskins
8th March, 2024

Monitoring Drug Pollutants in the Great Lakes Through Mussels

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • Study in Great Lakes found mussels contain various human drugs, like antibiotics and antidepressants
  • The highest levels of these drugs were not near sewage plants, suggesting other sources like runoff
  • Mussels had mixtures of 4-28 different drugs, showing widespread pollution complexity
In recent years, the presence of chemicals in our water systems has become a growing concern, particularly those known as chemicals of emerging concern (CECs). These CECs include a variety of substances like pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), which are not commonly monitored but can have significant environmental impacts. A new study by researchers from NOAA/NOS/NCCOS[1] has shed light on the occurrence and distribution of these chemicals in coastal aquatic systems, particularly in the Great Lakes Basin. The study focused on 70 different compounds, which were detected in the tissue samples of dreissenid mussels, a type of freshwater mussel common to the Great Lakes region. These compounds spanned several classes, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and even chemotherapy drugs. The researchers found that the concentration and detection of these PPCPs varied greatly depending on the location, land use around the sampling sites, and proximity to point source discharges like wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) or combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Among the detected PPCPs, several were found in more than half of the mussels tested, including the heart medication verapamil, the antibacterial triclocarban, and the insect repellent DEET. The study also found that antihypertensives, antibiotics, and antidepressants were the most common types of compounds quantified in the mussel tissue. The findings of the NOAA/NOS/NCCOS study are particularly concerning because they revealed that PPCPs were found as complex mixtures in the mussels, with anywhere from 4 to 28 different compounds detected at various locations. Interestingly, the highest levels of PPCPs were found at sites not directly influenced by WWTP or CSO discharges, which indicates that non-point sources, such as agricultural runoff or urban stormwater, play a significant role in the introduction of these chemicals into the environment. This discovery aligns with previous research that emphasized the need for mixture toxicity evaluation in aquatic environments due to the complex mixtures introduced by human activities[2]. The earlier study also highlighted the importance of employing alternative approaches to assess the risk and impact of these mixtures, which is something the NOAA/NOS/NCCOS research has contributed to by identifying the presence of these mixtures in mussels. The increasing detection of anticancer drugs in the environment, as mentioned in another related study, poses additional concerns[3]. These drugs have been found in various water sources and can have detrimental effects on aquatic life and potentially disrupt ecosystem functioning. The NOAA/NOS/NCCOS study expands our understanding of these impacts by demonstrating that even chemotherapy drugs are part of the PPCP mixtures found in the Great Lakes Basin. Furthermore, the study connects with findings from research on the presence and removal of PPCPs in wastewater treatment plants during the COVID-19 pandemic[4]. This research highlighted the challenges of removing certain PPCPs from wastewater and the potential ecological risks they pose, which is corroborated by the detection of these compounds in non-point source influenced sites in the NOAA/NOS/NCCOS study. The significance of the NOAA/NOS/NCCOS study lies in its comprehensive assessment of PPCPs in an important freshwater system and its implication that non-point sources are a major contributor to the presence of these chemicals. It provides a crucial starting point for further ecological risk evaluations and the development of management strategies to mitigate the impact of these emerging contaminants. The study's findings underline the complexity of environmental pollution and the urgent need for continued research and monitoring to better understand the distribution, persistence, and ecological effects of PPCPs and other CECs. As these chemicals are detected both near the shore and further out in the open water, it is clear that the potential risks they pose are not fully known and require immediate attention from both scientists and policymakers to protect the health of our aquatic ecosystems.

EnvironmentHealthMarine Biology


Main Study

1) An assessment and characterization of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) within the Great Lakes Basin: Mussel Watch Program (2013-2018).

Published 5th March, 2024

Related Studies

2) Evaluation of Complex Mixture Toxicity in the Milwaukee Estuary (WI, USA) Using Whole-Mixture and Component-Based Evaluation Methods.

3) Anticancer drugs in wastewater and natural environments: A review on their occurrence, environmental persistence, treatment, and ecological risks.

4) Occurrence and risk assessment of typical PPCPs and biodegradation pathway of ribavirin in wastewater treatment plants.

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