Skyrocketing antidepressant use now affecting marine life, turning waterways into a ‘drug soup’

It might seem like flushing something down the toilet means it magically disappears, but unfortunately everything that goes down there ends up somewhere. This means that the many people who flush unused medications rather than throwing them in the trash can because they think they’re being responsible are actually polluting the environment. This is especially true of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications.

According to the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, and as reported by NBC News, an alarming one in six Americans over the age of 12 is on some type of antidepressant or other psychiatric medication. And many of those people are disposing of their unused drugs by flushing them down the toilet. In addition, these chemical medications also enter the water supply via the urine and feces of the people taking them.

The result? Researchers from the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, England, have warned in a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, that our waterways are severely polluted by these drugs, causing great harm to marine life.

‘Bathed in drugs’

“Our aquatic life is bathing in a soup of antidepressants,” Professor Alex Ford of the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Marine Sciences, told the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are found everywhere, in sewage, surface water, ground water, drinking water, soil, and accumulating in wildlife tissues. They are found in sea water and rivers and their potential ability to disrupt the normal biological systems of aquatic organisms is extensive.”

Professor Ford also stressed that these animals are not only exposed to such pollutants on a one-off basis but are “bathed in drugs for their entire lifecycle.”

He added, “Laboratory studies are reporting changes such as how some creatures reproduce, grow, the rate at which it matures, metabolism, immunity, feeding habits, the way it moves, its colour and its behaviour.”

Part of the problem, according to Dr. Helena Herrera from Portsmouth’s School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, is that many doctors prescribe psychiatric medications without having any idea of how they can linger in the environment and damage marine life. (Related: What our poop is telling researchers — Wastewater studied to learn if drug manufacturers are a major source for contamination of waterways.)

The research team’s suggestions – which were aimed at the United Kingdom, but are equally applicable in the United States – include:

  • Upgrading water treatment plants to meet with existing EU regulations regarding estrogens which end up in the water system via the contraceptive pill, and which would also mitigate the antidepressant problem;
  • Making patients (and doctors) aware of the problem and urging them to return unused medications to the pharmacy where they were obtained; and
  • Putting pressure on Big Pharma to alter these medications in such a way that they break down safely rather than leaving a trail of destruction.

Are so many antidepressants really necessary?

According to Harvard Health, there was a shocking 400 percent increase in the use of antidepressant drugs between 1988 and 2008. While some scientists insist that this increase is because depression was a previously overlooked disease, Harvard Health noted:

There is some overuse and has been a major factor in the 400% increase.

Since these drugs have serious side effects, are known to be ineffective, and are destroying the environment, perhaps the solution is not to upgrade treatment plants but to stop over-prescribing toxic drugs? (Related: Antidepressants burden users with extreme side effects.)

In any event, if you do need to dispose of antidepressant or other drugs, the FDA provides an informative article about how to do so safely.

Discover the truth about depression and antidepressant drugs at

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