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Study Shows A Lot Of Pharmaceuticals In The Hudson River

Courtesy of John Lipscomb/Riverkeeper
Carol Knudson, research assistant at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, samples the Hudson River for drugs

A new study finds high levels of drugs in the Hudson River. Researchers say the study is a step toward understanding how pharmaceuticals are distributed in the river and whether the levels are high enough to affect aquatic life. The findings are based on samples taken from Troy to New York City, with the highest levels in between.

Researchers found 16 different pharmaceutical compounds, including antibiotics, drugs for treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, epilepsy, ulcers and heartburn, and the common aspirin substitute acetaminophen. It’s believed the medications enter the river through sewage outfalls after people excrete unmetabolized doses, or when people dump unused pills down the drain. Andrew Juhl, an aquatic biologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, co-authored the study.

“What our study does is it informs us about the levels that are found in the Hudson, which are higher than many other systems that have been studied by other people,” Juhl says. “And that’s a reflection of the high population, the high human population density around the Hudson.”

The team compared its findings with a 2016 federal government survey of 182 U.S. rivers and streams. In Lamont-Doherty’s study, concentrations were highest near the sewage outfalls of a few municipalities north of New York City, including Orangetown in Rockland County and Yonkers in Westchester, where researchers consistently spotted some 90 percent of the drugs for which they tested. Juhl says the worst was at the sewage outfall for the city of Kingston. But there’s an explanation.

“Part of the reason why the Kingston values were so high is because, at the Kingston sewage treatment plant outfall, we actually are collecting a sample that is, it’s pretty much like a pipe,” says Juhl. “You can collect almost the raw outflow from the sewage treatment plant. So it’s much less diluted than some of the other locations.”

Juhl says high levels were also found near Troy and Albany. Concentrations of most drugs dropped in less populous reaches of the river, where inflowing creeks presumably diluted the effects of upstream pollution. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper, which also worked on the study.

“The pharmaceuticals are particularly concerning because they’re specifically designed to, in a little pill or a little vial, have an effect on our biology. So we know that as they enter the environment we can expect that they will have some effect on the aquatic life that’s out in the environment,” says Shapley. “We don’t know really what the specific effects are, but we see concentrations, even in this study in the Hudson River, that are at the same levels that other research has pointed to as being of a concern for aquatic life.”

Columbia’s Juhl says now that the study provides an idea of the concentrations and distribution of pharmaceuticals, which are considered emerging contaminants that do not have determined acceptable levels, next comes the question of what the ecological impact might be. Different combinations occurred in different places, but overall, the blood-pressure drugs were the most common. The researchers also tested for two common non-medications that would be expected to be found in sewage: caffeine and the artificial sweetener sucralose. Humans and sewage treatment plants cannot break down sucralose; it was found in more than 90 percent of the samples.

Riverkeeper’s Shapley says there is something that could help reduce the amount of drugs entering the Hudson.

“Contact your state assembly person, your state senator, and tell them that you support that you support the Drug Take Back Act,” Shapley says. “That is legislation that would ask the pharmaceutical companies and the pharmacies to fund a program to take back pharmaceuticals at pharmacies, so there would be a drop box, let’s say, at every pharmacy where you could take any unused medications and easily, conveniently drop it off.”

Republican Kemp Hannon of Long Island sponsors the bill in the Senate and Hudson Valley Democrat Aileen Gunther in the Assembly.

Juhl says the high levels of drugs found in the Hudson were not surprising given the area’s population density.

“But what did surprise me is when we made the calculation of how much volume of water was coming into the Hudson as sewage. And it’s not like it’s a difficult calculation to make; you just add up all of the outputs from all of the different sewage treatment plants. We just had never done it before. And so as part of this study we did that,” Juhl says. “And we calculated it was something like 5-10 percent of the fresh water flow in the Hudson above New York City is coming in in the form of treated sewage.”

In addition to Lamont-Doherty and Riverkeeper, the study was in collaboration with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff and Queens College.

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