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Pharmaceuticals in Aquatic Systems... an Easy Pill to Swallow?


On September 14, 2011, Laurentian SETAC members and guests attended the first Southern Ontario Pub Night of the season at Shakespeare’s Arms in Guelph.  The speaker was Dr. Paul Sibley, Professor and Associate Director of the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences, who asked the audience about “Pharmaceuticals in Aquatic Systems... an Easy Pill to Swallow?”.  During his presentation Paul provided a host of evidence supporting the position that the risks to humans associated with the presence of pharmaceuticals in aquatic systems are, with a few exceptions, much less than has been feared.

Paul first argued that society often chooses to believe what it wants to believe, and compared denialism to the concept of weight-of-evidence. He then dove into the heart of the matter, and explained the scientific and social reasons behind the concerns associated with PPCPs. Essentially, concern over the pervasiveness of pharmaceuticals arose in the late 1990s due to the development of increasingly sensitive instruments, rather than the sudden appearance of these compounds in aquatic systems. With concise mathematical calculations, he showed that with the concentrations currently detected in drinking water, even the most prevalent pharmaceuticals would need to be consumed for 99 or more years in order to reach clinical exposure levels, with the exception of ibuprofen (0.3 year). His conclusion was that with the exception of endocrine-active substances and compounds which may lead to antibiotic resistance, pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment pose relatively low risks to human health. Paul then presented several case studies from research performed at the University of Guelph.

- Submitted by Ève Gilroy and Natalie Feisthauer

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