EARTH TALK 

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

What happens to the chemicals in drugs once they are out of our systems?

--Courtney Moschetta,

Huntsville, AL

Every time you swallow a pill, some of that medicine follows a circuitous path through your body, down the toilet, through the sewage treatment plant (where it is often resistant to traditional treatments) and into the nearest river or lake, where it is eventually tapped again for the public drinking water supply.

According to Christian Daughton, chief of environmental chemistry at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Environmental Research Laboratory in Las Vegas, new technologies now allow scientists to detect extremely low levels of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, as well as compounds found in personal care products like shampoo and sunscreen, in water. In Kansas City alone, more than 40 percent of stream samples analyzed recently by the U.S. Geological Survey had detectable amounts of over-the-counter-drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, antibiotics, and prescription medications for high blood pressure.

While the effects on human health of drug residues in water are not yet a serious concern, new studies show that fish and other aquatic species may be affected, says Daughton. Antibiotics make some species more resistant to pathogens, steroids can cause endocrine disruption that interferes with reproductive processes, and anti-depressants make fish tranquil and more likely to succumb to predation. Considering the large variety of pharmaceuticals on the market today, our water may have a witch's brew of very small amounts of many different kinds of drugs.

Right now there are no EPA or Food and Drug Administration regulations in place to control levels of residual drugs in water, but some environmental groups concerned with water quality want to see drug disposal policies enacted, new sewage treatment technologies developed, and source reduction efforts on the part of pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. Daughton envisions a day when drug companies will take responsibility for the life cycle of their products. Instead of flushing your unused prescription drugs down the toilet, you may be able to send them back to the pharmacy or return them to the maker for proper disposal. Such programs already exist in areas of Europe and Canada.

Contact: EPA National Environmental Research Laboratory, Environmental Sciences Division, www.epa.gov/nerlesd1/chemistry/pharma/overview.htm; United States Geological Survey's Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, toxics.usgs.gov/regional/emc.html

There are so many juices labeled "natural." Which ones are most healthful?

--Zenas Lu,

Boston, Mass.

The most healthful juice you can drink is made fresh, right before you drink it, from (preferably) organic fruits and vegetables with nothing added. The beneficial enzymes, vitamins and minerals are at their peak, and some health practitioners say that the water that comes from inside fruits and vegetables is the purest kind. When juices are packaged and pasteurized, they lose some of their nutritional value. Juices pack a nutritional punch, and are a good way to get part of your daily requirement of fruits and veggies. The American Dietetic Association calls orange juice a "nutrition powerhouse."

Obviously we don't always have the time or money to drink fresh juice, and that's when bottled juices are a good choice over soda or sugary iced teas. But buyer beware: Widely popular commercial "fruit drinks," with little to no real fruit juice, are largely artificially colored sugar water and contain minimal amounts of fruit juice.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), many fruit "drinks," "beverages," "ades" and "cocktails" are nothing more than non-carbonated soda pop. Fruitopia "Real Fruit Beverage" and Sunny Delight "Real Fruit Beverage," for example, contain only five percent juice. V8 "Splash" is about 25 percent juice and 75 percent sugar-water. CSPI says that, while Fruitopia has "100% vitamin C per serving" in flavors like Strawberry Passion Awareness, the product contains only about five percent strawberry juice and 95 percent high-fructose corn syrup. Similarly, Mystic Mango Mania Fruit Drink has mangoes pictured all over the label, but the product doesn't contain any mango, except perhaps a small amount included in the "natural flavors." You're getting roughly three percent white grape juice and 97 percent sugar water. The health Web site Lifeclinic.com argues that juice in such limited amounts does not have any health benefit.

Reading labels is the best way to ensure you are buying what's best for you. If you're buying off the shelf, try to avoid juices with artificial ingredients or preservatives and, quite simply, anything with less than 100 percent juice. Also, if you are watching your weight, many bottled juices can be high in calories, owing to natural fruit sugars. Drink water and eat whole fruit, which has fiber along with all the nutritional benefits.

Contacts: American Dietetic Association, (800) 877-1600, www.eatright.org; Center for Science in the Public Interest, (202) 332-9110, www.cspinet.org; Lifeclinic.com, (800)543-2850, www.lifeclinic.com.

Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or submit your question at: www.emagazine.com, or e-mail us at: earthtalk@emagazine.com

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