Pharmaceuticals in the waters of Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound

Tracking the Presence and Persistence of Pharmaceuticals in Cape Cod Bay:

Pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs) encompass a variety of manmade contaminants including pharmaceuticals, personal care products, household cleansers and detergents. These types of contaminants are introduced into the environment through various pathways but are predominantly associated with wastewater. A study conducted during 2000 and 2001 by the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed water from 139 streams in 30 states, including Massachusetts, specifically for the presence of pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other wastewater contaminants. An astounding 80 percent of these 139 steams contained at least one or more of the contaminants included in the study (Barnes et al., 2002).

Many Americans use over-the-counter and prescription drugs on a daily basis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost half of all people took at least one prescription drug, and one in six took three or more medications in 2004 (Health, United States 2004). Excess pharmaceuticals that are not used by the human body are discharged into the wastewater stream. Also, people may dispose of leftover pharmaceuticals by flushing them down the toilet, pouring them down the sink, or throwing them away as solid waste. These discharged pharmaceutical compounds enter the environment principally in groundwater. Other PhACs such as personal care products, cleaners and detergents also enter groundwater through such pathways.

The potential dangers posed by pharmaceuticals in the marine environment, though not completely understood, are wide-ranging. Potential impacts include abnormal physiological effects, impaired reproduction, and increased cancer rates (Boyd and Furlong, 2002). In several species of marine organisms, negative effects on fertility, gonadal development and reproductive rates, all of which directly affect population levels, have been related to concentrations of PhACs in the environment. Also of concern are the unknown effects of exposure to low concentrations of multiple types of contaminants and whether they have synergistic, additive or antagonistic effects. Some of these interactions have been documented in controlled experiments in several species of fish (Brian et al., 2005; Thorpe et al., 2001).

In 2012 the Center undertook a project to characterize the occurrence of these contaminants in the Cape Cod Bay ecosystem to help determine baseline levels of PhAC’s, track spatial and temporal changes in concentrations and types of PhAC’s and identify potential sources of PhAC’s. Five creeks (Pamet River, Duck Creek, Namskaket Creek, Scorton Creek and Jones River) and two offshore sites (6M and 9S) were chosen to test for the presence of PhAC’s (specifically sulfamethoxazole, trimethoprim, carbamazepine, acetaminophen, and caffeine) in May, July and September.

CEC photo

Four of the five selected PhACs tested for were found (trimethoprim was not found) and 53% of the samples tested were contaminated with at least one of these four PhACs. Because humans are the only source of these types of contaminants, these data are a clear indication that our coastal waters are impacted by wastewater, contaminated groundwater, and other anthropogenic means that introduce these types of contaminants into the ecosystem.

Nantucket Sound Pharmaceutical Monitoring:

In 2013 the Center expanded their pharmaceutical testing into the waters of Nantucket Sound. Water samples were collected from 20 stations throughout Nantucket Sound and the embayments on the Cape and Islands. Samples were collected three times during the field season (spring, summer, fall). All samples were tested for the sample compounds as in the Cape Cod Bay study in 2012. Select samples were further tested for a broader range of contaminants including 64 pharmaceutically active compounds and 9 estrogens and other horomones. All samples were also analyzed for the general water quality parameters that are a part of the Center’s monitoring program.