Testing for Drugs in the Tennessee River
By: Lauren Gregory
Water in the Tennessee River isn’t going to give you the wake-up jolt that a cup of coffee does.
But it has enough caffeine to do that — and more — for the tiny wildlife living in and around the Tennessee River, according to researchers who found the presence of caffeine and a number of other drugs in the local water supply.
Caffeine exists in a high-enough concentration to force-feed a typical baby mayfly the equivalent of 26.6 cups of coffee a day, according to Sean Richards, associate professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Caffeine was found in more than 93 percent of about 160 test samples of river water.
Meanwhile, Dr. Richards said, that mayfly also is ingesting a cocktail of at least 12 other common drugs, including several antibiotics, antidepressants and substances designed to lower human cholesterol levels. While the amount of drugs in the water is tiny by human standards, they one day may have a serious impact on the environment — and on humans, as well, he said.
After taking drugs, people excrete the excess through urine, sweat and other body waste.
Antibiotics in water pose resistance risk
The issue of drugs in the water supply has surfaced in national media reports and congressional hearings in recent years. But Dr. Richards’ study, conducted with UTC associate chemistry professor Steven Symes, marks the first time Chattanooga’s water has been brought into the discussion.
The data about pharmaceutical concentrations in general are still few and far between, according to Dr. Symes. Researchers across the country have been able to study the issue for only the past decade as technology improved enough to measure the quantities of the drugs, which are recorded in parts per trillion, he said.
A landmark study published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2002 and an Associated Press investigation last March delved into the issue, Dr. Symes said, but neither included any studies in Tennessee — despite the fact that historically, the Volunteer State has had one of the highest rates of prescription drug use in the country.
“We noticed a lack of data in the Tennessee River Valley,” he said. “We folded that with the fact that we know we’re very unhealthy, and we take lots of drugs.”
The team received a $251,720 grant from the National Science Foundation that allowed it to purchase the equipment needed to spend 21/2 years analyzing river water samples from Knoxville to Chattanooga, including the spot where the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant redeposits water into the river.
The scientists said they have yet to make the leap from testing river water to testing tap water that area residents might drink. But studies from other areas showing drugs in drinking water, combined with the testing on the supply from which Chattanooga’s drinking water is drawn, are troubling because they could prove a barometer for what’s to come in the human realm, Dr. Richards said.
“If you’re taking all these drugs at once, in really low concentrations, for your entire life, does that sound like a good thing? I don’t think so,” he said.
Staff Photo by Meghan Brown The Tennessee River flows downstream from Nickajack Lake near South Pittsburg, Tenn., on Thursday. Many Tennessee towns in the river's watershed are looking to the river to solve their water shortages due to drought.
“Everyone’s worried about pesticides in the water, but the amount of pharmaceuticals that get dumped in the water via just taking them is going to equal or exceed that of pesticides,” Dr. Richards said. “You have to wonder what it’s doing to the ecosystem. If we’re upsetting the balance in any way, it can’t be perceived as a good thing.”
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