As our society becomes increasingly environmentally conscious, the impact that medicines have on our aquatic ecosystems has become increasingly clear.
After these drugs are flushed down toilets or sinks – either intentionally or after passing through the body – they often end up in our waterways. Most conventional filtering techniques at sanitation plants fail to remove the bulk of the chemicals used in these drugs.
From there on, these drugs can end up in tap water, which is often then consumed by humans. Although research into the impact of this remains in early stages, given the variety of deleterious side effects associated with drug-based medications, it is reasonable to assume that this could be harmful.
Even more concerning is when these drugs enter the food chain. Due to the way in which the gills of fish function, drugs are much more easily absorbed into their bloodstreams than mammals, even at relatively low concentrations within the water. As well as this, drugs can be absorbed by algae, shellfish or plankton, large numbers of which are in turn consumed by fish and waterfowl, leading to the drug becoming ever more concentrated and potent in the process.
Some of these fish and waterfowl are then eaten by humans, creating an additional food safety hazard. For example, in the north-western United States, salmon – a common food source for both bears and humans there – have been found to have hormones, antibiotics and even opiates in their tissue.
A laboratory study conducted to examine the effect of opiates on zebrafish noticed that zebrafish that had been exposed to opiates engaged in riskier behaviour, such as swimming into open water. In a wild setting, this conduct would put them at a greater risk of predation and consequently reduce the numbers of the species of fish most affected by these opioids in our waterways, which could lead them to become extinct in some rivers and lakes.
Opiates are frequently used to treat pain, even when alternative therapies, such as neuromodulation, can be far more effective. Given that they have such a damaging environmental impact as well, it ought to matter of priority to transition our healthcare systems aware from their own dependency on opiate treatments.
In order to maintain a safe, clean supply of drinking water and to protect our underwater ecosystems for future generations, we have a duty to reduce our consumption of opiates where we can. Instead, the NHS can and should embrace neuromodulation technologies, such as BioWave devices, to help chronic pain sufferers in a way that is both effective and environmentally friendly.