Trying to stem flood of drugs in waterways

From cocaine and morphine to antibiotics and antihistamines, the nation’s waterways are awash in drugs.

Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist from the Cary Institute, chats with attendees after her Stroud Water Research Center presentation entitled 'Our Rivers on Drugs.'

Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist from the Cary Institute, chats with attendees after her Stroud Water Research Center presentation entitled 'Our Rivers on Drugs.'

Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist from the Cary Institute, discussed this disturbing discovery at the Stroud Water Research Center on Thursday, April 21. Her presentation, entitled “Our Rivers on Drugs,” was part of the center’s Science Seminar Series and attracted an appreciative audience of about 80.

David B. Arscott, Stroud’s assistant director and a research scientist, introduced Rosi-Marshall, a scientist from the Cary Institute who worked previously as an associate professor at Loyola University of Chicago. Rosi-Marshall is also heading the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term ecological research project.

Rosi-Marshall, who described herself as an aquatic ecologist, said she was thrilled to be visiting Stroud for the first time. She said he hoped the local audience realized how significant the Stroud Water Research Center is to freshwater ecology.

She used a 1962 quote from Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring,” to set the stage for her lecture: “The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustments are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man's inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.”

Rosi-Marshall suggested that Carson’s admonitions are truer today, and she acknowledged that the research she and her team have been conducting raises more questions than answers. What is known, she said, is that the 1,467 pharmaceuticals and an infinite number of chemical-laden, personal-care products, collectively known as PPCP, take many pathways into the water.

Some are discharged from drug manufacturing plants while others are released through human waste. “Wastewater treatment plants were not designed to remove pharmaceuticals,” she said, adding that the plants represent an ailing infrastructure in need of a $300 billion overhaul.

Another way that drugs infiltrate the freshwater system occurs through improper disposal, Rosi-Marshall said, explaining that when unused medications are flushed down the toilet or thrown in the trash, they eventually end up in streams and rivers.

New Garden Township Police Officer Matthew Jones offers a safe way to dispose of unwanted medication.

New Garden Township Police Officer Matthew Jones offers a safe way to dispose of unwanted medication.

Rosi-Marshall said that out of the many dozens of times that she’s spoken on this topic, the Stroud Water Research Center was the only venue to offer an opportunity for attendees to dispose of unwanted medications safely.

“That’s so awesome,” she said, referring to the presence of New Garden Township Officer Matthew Jones, who had a collection box at the back of the room.

Rosi-Marshall said she and her researchers have created artificial waterways with concentrations of PPCPs that mimic what’s occurring in nature. She said experiments to put algae on drugs and bugs on drugs have begged numerous questions that will require further investigation.

For example, Benadryl, a common antihistamine, affects algae more than other drugs do, but scientists do not yet know why. Changes have occurred in bug populations, but the effects on mortality and growth have yet to be determined, Rosi-Marshall said.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates sewage, but not PPCPs, and the Food and Drug Administration monitors the safety of drugs, but not their effects on the environment, Rosi-Marshall said, adding that cosmetics are totally unregulated.

She said one good place for people to start fixing the problem is to reduce the use of chemicals and lobby lawmakers to maintain and upgrade the sewage infrastructure. After the 45-minute presentation, Rosi-Marshall took questions from the audience and then stayed to chat with attendees.

Joan Fenza of Landenberg said that the recent problems in Flint, Mi., have made water “a hot topic” and that she learned a lot from the lecture.

Tony Buck of Coatesville agreed. “It’s a huge problem,” he said. “Every drug is in the water.”

Buck suggested that the country desperately needs to focus on its aging sewage infrastructure. “I think water and soil and climate change will define the next 100 years,” he said.

Kelly Dillon traveled from Elverson to attend the presentation with her eighth-grade daughter, Eva. As a home-schooling mother who works as a program coordinator for Open Connections, a home-schooling resource, Dillon said she’s very familiar with the educational programs that Stroud offers.

Dillon said she appreciated Rosi-Marshall’s candor in stressing that many unknowns exist about the effects of drugs on waterways. And although she found that revelation depressing, Dillon said she felt inspired to do her part to minimize the impact.

“I had no idea this was happening,” her daughter added. “I learned a lot.”

The Stroud Water Research Center began in 1967, five years before the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency. It resulted from the foresight and vision of W.B. Dixon Stroud, his wife, Joan M. Stroud, and Ruth Patrick, a water scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences. They joined forces to establish a location in Avondale along a branch of the White Clay Creek that could be studied by teams of scientists during a time when the nation’s waterways were severely imperiled.

Since then, the center has expanded, continuing its commitment to environmental advocacy. Its Moorhead Environmental Complex received LEED platinum certification in 2013, the highest honor for green buildings. For more information on the center and its many programs, visit

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.



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