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Prescription Drugs Found In Large Concentrations In Water Near Manufacturing Plants

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're often told not to flush medicine down the toilet because it can work its way into lakes and streams, even our drinking water. Well, a new investigation finds that major drugmakers are basically doing the same thing on a much larger scale.

Reporter Natasha Gilbert of Type Investigations reports that prescription drugs are showing up in large concentrations of wastewater just downstream of these plants. Her story appears today on the website of Stat news, and she's here in the studio to tell us more.

Hi, Natasha.

NATASHA GILBERT: Hi.

SHAPIRO: So what did your investigation find?

GILBERT: We were looking at some work by the USGS.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. Geological Survey.

GILBERT: That's right. And they tested wastewater downstream from several pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities around the country. And they found high concentrations of drugs in the wastewater coming out from wastewater treatment plants.

SHAPIRO: Everything from opioid painkillers to anti-depressants.

GILBERT: Right.

SHAPIRO: How did the drugs get there? You talked to people who worked in these plants who actually described it to you.

GILBERT: Yeah. What happens is when drug manufacturers make pharmaceuticals, there's lots of powder. It goes up into the air when they press them into tablets. It's - there's a lot of drug residue. This gets onto the machines. And when they wash it off, all the drugs in the wastewater go down the drain and straight to the wastewater treatment facilities, where they go in one end and, basically, pretty much out the other because wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals.

SHAPIRO: When you say these drugs were detected downstream, how high of a concentration are we talking about?

GILBERT: So in some cases, a thousand times higher than the safe levels for wildlife. And if you compare that to these drug levels in wastewater that does not receive pharmaceutical manufacturing waste, it can be up to a hundred times higher.

SHAPIRO: And what's the impact of this on plants, animals, humans?

GILBERT: So there isn't really impact on humans. We do know from previous work that there is drugs in drinking water, but they're at very, very low concentrations. They won't hurt people. The real impact here is on animals and wildlife. Some drugs, like anti-depressants - they affect the way that fish protect their nests. These are sort of key survival behaviors, so the young end up getting, you know, eaten by predators.

SHAPIRO: What do the drugmakers say about your investigation?

GILBERT: Some of them didn't comment. Some of them said that they didn't think - it wasn't them, and they pointed to hospitals that are also in the area. They suggested those hospitals could be responsible for these drug levels. It is true that hospitals do contribute to drug pollution. But experts that we spoke to say that generally, drug concentrations coming from pharmaceutical manufacturers are higher.

SHAPIRO: And the surveys found high concentrations of the specific drugs that were manufactured in those plants.

GILBERT: They did. What our investigation did was to identify which companies were likely responsible and to pin down which were the drugs that were made at those pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities.

SHAPIRO: Is this illegal?

GILBERT: It's not illegal. Officially, they're not doing anything wrong. But you could argue that this is something new that needs to be looked at, given the impacts that it could be having on wildlife.

SHAPIRO: Natasha Gilbert, thanks a lot.

GILBERT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: She's a reporter for Type Investigations, and her story appears online at Stat news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.