Campus & Community Ecology
PPCPs in the Environment
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Many people are unaware that a new health and environmental concern has emerged among scientists around the world - pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in the environment.  Until recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies have been primarily concerned with monitoring and regulating a relatively small number of so-called priority pollutants in our nation's air, water, and soil.  However, the greatly escalating use of prescription drugs and a bewildering variety of personal care products has resulted in the manufacture of literally tens of thousands of new and complex chemicals that enter the environment in large quantities, especially in our wastewater and sewage treatment plants. 
LIFE DOWN THE DRAIN - is a special report by students who took an online course in Conservation Biology (Natrs 450/550) through WSU's Distance Degree Program (DDP) during fall semester, 2003.  These seniors and graduate students each completed an independent study of the issue of PPCPs in the environment and prepared short written reports of their findings, which are the basis for this special report.
To begin their analysis, students read a provocative account of the potential effects of PPCPs in a chapter, The Environmental Impacts of Technological Medicine, from the book, The Lost Language of Plants - The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth, by Stephen H. Buhner, 2002, Chelsea Green Publishing.
To supplement this writing intended for a popular audience, students conducted their own independent review of the subject by reading peer-reviewed scientific journal papers and reports by the EPA and other scientific sources.  Several representative student papers are presented at the end of this special report by the Campus & Community Ecology Project.
What Are PPCPs?
Pharmaceuticals are basically commercial drugs and medicines that are taken to treat illness, disease, and medical conditions in both humans and animals.  Pharmaceuticals include antidepressants, tranquilizers, psychiatric drugs, cancer (chemotherapy) drugs, pain killers, anti-inflammatories, antihypertensives (e.g., blood pressure medications), antiseptics, lipid regulators (e.g., cholesterol medication), oral contraceptives, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, drugs for enhancing sexual performance (e.g., Viagra, Levitra) and many other classes and types of drugs.
Personal care products include a wide variety of compounds, such as perfumes, musks, shampoos, deodorants, hair dyes, oral hygiene products, hair sprays, make up, nail polish, sun screens, body lotions, lipsticks, and cremes.
PPCPs in the Environment
Pharmaceuticals and personal care products are excreted as human or animal waste or are rinsed from our bodies and washed down drains and sewer systems to be released into the environment in staggering quantities around the world.
Many pharmaceuticals and personal care products have persistent chemicals and compounds that remain biologically active after they leave the body or are disposed in landfills and waters.  Hospitals, doctors offices, veterinary clinics, farms, ranches, and average homes are continual sources of PCPPs.  We all contribute to putting PPCPs in the environment.
Environmental Effects
PPCPs are of concern for potential ecological and environmental impacts because they may be active at extremely low concentrations, are widespread and continuously released in large quantities, have unpredictable biochemical interactions when mixed, and at times may concentrate in the food chain and especially affect aquatic organisms.
Some of the known potential impacts on organisms include delayed development in fish, delayed metamorphosis in frogs, and a variety of reactions including altered behavior and reproduction.  Researchers at several universities have recently discovered that a group of antidepressants, including drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Celexa may be found in frogs and fish and significantly slow their development.
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Estrogen in the Environment
Synthetic estrogen hormones are taken by many women for birth control and hormonal replacement therapies and are sometimes taken by men for treatment of prostate cancer.  Both natural and synthetic estrogens enter sewage treatment plants in large quantities, as well as chemicals from degradation of surfactants and plasticizers that mimic estrogens.
Increased feminization of fish populations (e.g., inter-sex, hermaphroditic fish - males with eggs; high proportion of females to males) has been observed in several fish populations exposed to waste water containing estrogens (e.g., Excreted Drugs: Something Looks Fishy).
Implications for WSU
The many human health and environmental issues surrounding PPCPs affect WSU and our surrounding communities as they do every other city and community - and the entire world.  Some of these implications for WSU include the need for better understanding of the:
  • Fate of pharmaceuticals and animal waste products on campuses and farms 
  • Fate of PPCPs and other chemicals in composting operations
  • Effectiveness of existing community sewage and water treatment plants
  • Proposed use of recycled waste water in Pullman, WA, and the WSU campus
  • Potential changes in the creation and processing of waste products to reduce PPCPs
Next Steps for WSU?
This initial Campus & Community Ecology report, prompted by WSU students, is only the first small step to raise greater awareness of the issue of PPCPs in the environment and ultimately help WSU campuses and communities decide what future management actions may be appropriate.  The next step will be to gather additional background and technical information and report back to the WSU community. 
We will do so by contactingWSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, Business Affairs - Materials and Resources Management, Center for Integrated Biotechnology, Center for Multiphase Environmental Research, Center for Reproductive Biology, Environmental Health and Safety, School of Molecular Biosciences, and other programs to talk to individuals who may be conducting research related to PPCPs and learn how WSU campuses handle pharmaceuticals and waste products of treated and confined animals.
WSU Research Opportunities
There are many opportunities for WSU to make a positive scientific contribution to the pressing issue of PPCPs through our many research programs in biotechnology, ecology, environmental engineering, human and environmental health, environmental science, and veterinary science.  Some of the potential first-step solutions may involve additional water treatment technology, designated composting of contaminated wastes, as well as improved waste reduction and handling at the source.  This issue is a prime example of the need for the "Biotechnology in the Environment" initiative proposed by WSU faculty (see: Reports).
LIFE DOWN THE DRAIN: The WSU Student Perspective
The following student reports are representative of the reviews and conclusions that were reached by WSU students from a variety of majors completing a short writing assignment on PPCPs in the environment:
Continued on Page 2:
Solutions; The Precautionary Principle; The Green Pharmacy; To Learn More About PPCPs
Click below to view a slide show about PPCPs from Dr. Christian Doughton, EPA: