Sunday, April 19, 2009

Numberless enviro news makes me skeptical

AP IMPACT: Tons of released drugs taint US water

I don't doubt that having certain levels of certain chemicals in wastewater streams is a bad thing. But stories like this (linked by Instapundit) do not prove that those levels exist. (To his credit, Prof. Reynolds says so, too.) Furthermore, the numbers they do present occasionally undermine their narrative. Consider the following:
Two common industrial chemicals that are also pharmaceuticals - the antiseptics phenol and hydrogen peroxide - account for 92 percent of the 271 million pounds identified as coming from drugmakers and other manufacturers. Both can be toxic and both are considered to be ubiquitous in the environment.
Wait a minute - 92% of the load that you're wigging out about consists of antiseptics? And they're ubiquitous in the environment anyway? Color me unimpressed. Two paragraphs later there's this:
Residues are often released into the environment when manufacturing equipment is cleaned.
I suppose they'd rather we leave the toxic stuff in concentrated form on the factory equipment for the workers to get sick on. More:
What's more, because the EPA hasn't concluded at what level, if any, pharmaceuticals are bad for the environment or harmful to people, drugmakers almost never have to report the release of pharmaceuticals they produce.
Since we don't really know what level is harmful to people, and given the dramatic and proven benefits that pharmaceuticals have generally been to human populations, shouldn't the burden of proof be on these advocacy organizations to demonstrate that a given level is toxic?
Another codeine plant, run by Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Noramco Inc., is about seven miles away. A Noramco spokesman acknowledged that the Wilmington, Del., factory had voluntarily tested its wastewater and found codeine in trace concentrations thousands of times greater than what was found in the Delaware River. "The amounts of codeine we measured in the wastewater, prior to releasing it to the City of Wilmington, are not considered to be hazardous to the environment," said a company spokesman.
Classic alarmism. They don't tell us what the absolute levels are in the Delaware River or in the waste stream, or compare those to any known standard or toxicity level. They just insert the entirely plausible statement that the level in the wastewater is THOUSANDS OF TIMES GREATER than the general level, insinuating that THIS IS BAD without ever establishing that as a fact. If you'll pardon the imagery, this is a little bit like complaining that the level of poop in my sewage pipe is THOUSANDS OF TIMES GREATER than the level in the Atlantic Ocean. It may be true, but it's entirely irrelevant.

I'm all for avoiding obvious mistakes by dumping drugs into rivers at concentrations that are known to be harmful to humans, even locally. But I want to see some hard numbers, like, say, the number of gallons of water these 271 million pounds of toxic substances were dumped into, before I'm convinced.


cookeville said...

As a chemist, I'm not normally on the side of the fearmongers. And I'm not a rabid treehugger, either. But this is an area where it's not a bad idea to be cautious.

* Some compounds are beneficial when taken to treat a specific illness, but harmful otherwise. Estrogen in birth control pills can cause hormone problems in men. Got a bleeding problem? Might not want to drink water that contains your neighbor's blood thinners.

* Some compounds help people, but not so much plants and other animals. One of the linked articles talks about the intersex fish; there's other examples of severe endocrine problems traceable to human pharma use. (Very low levels, yes - but the whole endocrine system operates on very small concentrations, it doesn't take much to start causing problems. There's a pill to treat male pattern baldness which women aren't even supposed to touch, because nanograms absorbed through the skin can cause problems in their male babies.)

* "[T]he dramatic and proven benefits that pharmaceuticals have generally been to human populations" - they've had those benefits mostly by being given to specific individuals for treating specific conditions. Giving pencillin shots to someone with gangrene can save their life. Spreading tiny traces of pencillin through the water supply only leads to pen-resistant bacteria - even if it's far more total mass of penicillin.

* "They'd rather we leave the toxic stuff in concentrated form on the factory equipment for the workers to get sick on" - that's not the alternative, as even a moment's thought should have told you. The real choice is to clean the equipment in ways which don't allow material to escape. (Why don't they already? First, because it's marginally more expensive to do so, and they're under constant public pressure to keep drug prices "under control". Charge more money, send the factory to China, or allow 100 grams a day of lithium carbonate down the drain - tough to blame them for option #3. Second, changes to an FDA-approved procedure, including that for cleaning the reactor between batches, require FDA approval. It's not something they can do lightly.)

Absolute numbers? From data I've seen (chemists, not newspapers), it's generally parts per billion. Which is a pretty small concentration, yes, but some of these compounds are used as medicines because they're extremely active. And data on the long-term effects of low levels of these compounds is hard to come by. So does that mean that this is really below "concentrations known to be harmful to humans"? Lead pipes for drinking water used to be considered "safe", but we've found out that it's really not. Does that mean it was a good idea to use lead before we knew it wasn't?

Or, until more is known, does it really make sense to assume that it's OK to dump stuff into the water?

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago I was given Vicodin for pain following surgery. Due to not liking the side effects, I only took one of the 30 pills in the bottle.

A few months later I spoke with a visiting nurse about what to do with the leftover pills. I told her I was a little concerned about flushing them down the drain because of the possible environmental impact. The nurse told me the consequences of someone taking the drug in my house (if, say, one of my grandchildren got hold of the bottle, or one of my older kids decided to self-medicate for whatever reason) were far more likely AND far more dangerous than flushing them down the toilet, so I went ahead and flushed 'em. I was never completely satisfied with that option.

At that time in my life, I was on a great many prescription drugs, all of which were VERY expensive, and some of which could surely have helped someone else who needed them and could not afford to pay for them. I realize this is off-topic, Matt, and I'm sorry for that, but I sure do wish there were a way to "recycle" unused medications without risking the environment or the patient. Love, Mom

FzxGkJssFrk said...

Actually, Mom, that's not off-topic at all. All of these concerns involve trade-offs exactly like the one you mention, at some level or another.

Cookeville - I take your point about the cleaning processes. (In my defense, I was partly being sarcastic.) But that still doesn't address the issues of 1) what is the alternative to dumping the stuff in the water? and 2) at what cost (both economically and in terms of the opportunity costs to human life)? Plus, the article says that most of the problem is at the consumer level rather than at the factory level.

There are other questions raised, too. Like: At what point do we simply cease making pharmaceuticals entirely because we don't have good long-term data? And: Why do we care about the effects on some fish? Isn't that just evolution? (Okay, so that last one's mostly a stretch, but I would like a serious answer from someone.)

The article didn't address any of these questions seriously. That was my problem with it.

FzxGkJssFrk said...

Cookeville - I guess I could have replied more simply with "Define *cautious* and give three examples". :)