Photograph by Daniel Dempster, Alamy
Published May 25, 2011
This story is part of special National Geographic News series on global water issues.
When antidepressant pills get flushed down the drain, they do more than create happier sewers.
Scientists in Erie, Pennsylvania, have found that minute concentrations of fluoxetine, the active ingredient in Prozac, are killing off microbial populations in the Great Lakes.
Traces of antidepressants such as Prozac have been found in both drinking and recreational water supplies throughout the world, in quantities experts say are too dilute to affect humans but which have been found to damage the reproductive systems of mollusks and may even affect the brains of animals like fish.
(Read more in National Geographic News: “Prozac Pollution Making Shrimp Reckless.”)
Killing off bacteria might seem like a good thing. "Your immediate thought is, 'well, that's good, because they're not supposed to be there anyways," said Mercyhurst College microbiologist Steve Mauro, whose team found fluoxetine in low doses in water near Lake Erie's beaches. "But what about all the other bacteria that are supposed to be there and part of that ecosystem?"
Treating clean lake water with similar strength doses killed off E. coli and enterococcus bacteria, both of which can cause serious infections in humans.
The fluoxetine found in Lake Erie is at very low levels—about one nanogram per liter of water, Mauro said. "It doesn't appear to be at a level that would be harmful to humans," or invertebrates, for that matter, though Mauro suspects that fluoxetine combined with other chemicals could be having a cumulative effect on the lake's ecosystem.
(Related: “Cocaine, Spices, Hormones Found in Drinking Water.”)
But what's puzzling is where the drug is coming from. Fluoxetine is thought to enter waterways after it passes through the body and is excreted in urine. And pill users who dispose of unused pills down the sink could be adding to the problem. Wastewater treatment plants generally don't filter out the chemical.
But near Presque Isle State Park in Lake Erie, where the water samples containing fluoxetine were found, "there's no particular fallout. We don't have a direct sewage outfall located anywhere near the beaches," Mauro said. That means the fluoxetine is likely spread out all over the lake, he added.
Mauro and colleagues presented their work Monday at the 111th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
(Read more: “More Drugs in Europe’s Water.”)
The World's Water
The world's increasing population and development of agricultural land are putting pressure on the Earth's limited freshwater supplies. Find out what's at stake and how you can help.
Learn more about the world's water challenge with photos, stories, videos, and more.
You might be surprised to see how the daily choices you make affect critical watersheds around the world.
Water Currents, by Sandra Postel and Others
Arizona's Verde River gets a boost from an innovative partnership.
Farmers in the Verde River Basin employ new technology to benefit a desert environment.
Funny new viral video series hopes to get people thinking about the importance of water.
Latest News Video
Mazes are a powerful tool for neuroscientists trying to figure out the brain and help us learn to grapple with the unexpected.
Stories From Experts in the Field
National Geographic Fellow Zeb Hogan tells us what needs to happen in order to save the region's giant fish.
Sunita Narain tells us how one remote village is setting an example for the rest of the country—and world.
National Geographic Freshwater Fellow Sandra Postel describes one of the biggest success stories in urban water management.