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Oct. 18, 2003, 12:16AM

Antidepressant traces in creek raise concerns

Fort Worth Star Telegram


The Baylor study raises more questions than answers. Among them:

Can these pharmaceuticals pollute drinking water supplies?

What are the health effects of eating fish contaminated with pharmaceuticals?

If fluoxetine is in the bluegills in Pecan Creek, might it also be in the biological tissues of other species in other waterways?

Researchers at Baylor University have found traces of a pharmaceutical antidepressant in the livers, muscles and brains of bluegills in a Denton County creek, raising concerns about the welfare of the popular sports fish and people who eat them.

The chemical is fluoxetine -- the primary component in Prozac. It likely came from a city of Denton wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into Pecan Creek and flows into Lake Lewisville in North Texas. Traces of the drug that are not absorbed into the body can flow down the toilet and through wastewater treatment plants, which are not designed to filter out pharmaceuticals.

Fluoxetine and other antidepressants affect fish in roughly the same ways they affect people, said Bryan Brooks, a Baylor toxicologist who led the study. It relaxes them.

"Maybe it makes you a happy fish and you're kind of hanging out," Brooks said. "But how does that influence your ability to capture prey? Do you instantly become candy for large-mouth bass because you're accumulating large amounts of Prozac in your system? These are areas where more research is needed."

Brooks will present the results of his study next month in Austin, at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

It's believed to be among the first studies to show that antidepressants in the water can accumulate in biological tissue, raising the possibility of long-term health and behavioral problems in fish, said Marsha Black, an aquatic toxicologist at the University of Georgia.

"That's really a significant finding," said Black, who's using a federal grant to study the health effects of fluoxetine and other antidepressants in fish. "This opens up the door and says these things are important."

Brooks' latest research comes on the heels of recent studies he helped conduct while a graduate student at the University of North Texas.

That research found that some male fish in Denton County are developing female characteristics because estrogen from prescription drugs is winding up in the water. The estrogen -- from birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy and other sources -- could reduce the fish population by rendering some males unable to breed.

The issue has garnered national attention in the past few years. A U.S. Geological Survey study last year found that 80 percent of the 139 streams it sampled in 30 states, including Texas, contained small amounts of pharmaceutical drugs, hormones, steroids and personal care products such as perfumes.

"It's very common," said Herbert Buxton, coordinator of the Geological Survey's Toxic Substances Hydrology Program. "What this tells us is that these wastewater pathways are worthy of a lot more study."

Brooks said he has already expanded the research to include catfish and black crappie.

He said Pecan Creek was picked as the study site because it gets as much as 13 million gallons a day of treated wastewater from Denton's Pecan Creek Water Reclamation Plant.

During the dry summer months, the wastewater from the plant comprises nearly all the creek's water flow.


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