Microbes May Regenerate Pharmaceutical Drugs, U. Colorado Denver Study Finds

Prescription Drugs
A recent study conducted in a wastewater treatment plant suggests that certain pharmaceutical chemicals actually increase in concentration during treatment.

Environmental Health News reports that a study conducted in the South Shore Water Reclamation Facility in Oak Creek, Wisconsin found that two pharmaceutical drugs, carbamazepine and ofloxacin, increased in concentration by 80% and 120% respectively in the water supply. Spearheaded by Dr. Benjamin Blair, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Denver, the research team suggests that the microbes used to treat the water may also synthesize certain pharmaceuticals back together.

Carbamazepine, an antiepileptic medication, and ofloxacin, an antibiotic, are just two of the countless pharmaceutical chemicals found in water processed by treatment plants. Their presence is due to people taking and subsequently excreting them from their bodies. Some of the chemicals are also due to people flushing the medication down the toilet or sink.

“Microbes seem to be making pharmaceuticals out of what used to be pharmaceuticals,” Blair said, who led the study as a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The South Shore Water Reclamation Facility, which serves residents in the Milwaukee area, processed water which contained 48 of the 57 pharmaceuticals Blair’s team predicted to find. Wastewater plants first remove solid waste from incoming wastewater before using microbes to decompose the organic matter that is naturally present in the sewage.

Though the specifics of the process is still subject to research, Blair and his team believe that the reason for the increased presence of pharmaceuticals is that the microbes used to treat the wastewater recombine the components of the drugs previously broken down by the human body. It is similar to the concept of “reverse engineering.”

“It’s a fascinating idea,” Blair said.

Another researcher, however, is hesitant to suggest that treatment plants are actually “recreating” drugs, claiming that the same process which increased the levels of carbamazepine and ofloxacin at the Oak Creek plant may occur naturally as well. Not to mention the fact that the regeneration only applies to certain chemicals.

One of the largest industries in the country, pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars every year making drugs that are consumed by millions of Americans. In 2011 for example, the industry made $230 billion in sales.

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