Airborne transit mooted as source of remote drug contaminants

Pharmaceuticals are known to get into waterways by a variety of routes. Some are flushed down toilets by patients; others originate from production-plant wastewater. Yet a new study has found chemicals in lakes far from any known sources, raising the possibility of airborne transit.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency research project analyzed water taken from 50 lakes in the midwestern state. Amitriptyline--an antidepressant first sold by Merck ($MRK) in the U.S. as Elavil in 1961--was found in almost 30% of the samples. In total, 24 pharmaceuticals were found in at least one of the lakes. Active pharmaceutical ingredients from Novartis' ($NVS) blockbuster Diovan and Pfizer's ($PFE) Xanax were among the chemicals found in the lakes. Multiple other studies have also found a wide range of pharmaceutical chemicals in waterways, leading to some states trying to get the industry to pay for drug-disposal programs.

What is unusual about the Minnesota research is the location of the lakes in which contaminants were found. Many lacked an obvious local source of the contamination--such as development on the shoreline--and as such the researchers think the chemicals traveled some distance. Earlier research has shown that chemicals--such as cocaine, which was found in one-third of lakes--can be detected in air samples. This creates the possibility that chemicals are being blown on the wind and then settling in remote locations, far from the original source.

The amounts reaching the remote lakes are minuscule--the highest concentration of amitriptyline was 4.1 nanograms per liter--but researchers are wary of trace levels of contaminants. Talking to Minnesota Public Radio, researcher Mark Ferrey said: "The concentrations that we're seeing, at parts per trillion level are vanishingly small. But there are more and more pieces of the puzzle coming together to show that yes, they can affect organisms in our environment in ways that are very unsettling."

- here's the MPR article
- check out the report

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