Your Drugs Are Depressing Plants

Pharmaceuticals are contaminating the soil, and that's stunting the growth of vegetables and other plants.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

You know all those pain pills you take for a headache, fever, and other ailments? When you flush them down the toilet or throw them in the trash bin, they eventually end up in the water supply and soil.

Now scientists have discovered that your drugs are depressing the way plants grow.

“We wanted to find out if these tiny amounts of drugs could impact plant growth,” said Clare Redshaw, an environmental toxicologist with the University of Exeter and a co-author of the study. “If you eat a crop or drink water contaminated with drugs, they are in minuscule amounts. But different drug cocktails affect plants differently.”

The researchers were particularly interested in finding out what effect ibuprofen and anti-inflammatories—two widely used drugs—had on vegetables such as lettuce and radish.

They found that the those plants did not grow normally. Certain drugs made the plants’ roots shorter while others made them longer.

Redshaw said it’s difficult to quantify the amount of drugs in the soil, but it’s a worldwide problem. The impact on humans remains to be studied, but the pharmaceutical contamination of the soil is likely to continue growing. For instance, more than 30 million people worldwide take just prescription anti-inflammatory drugs every day.

While this is the first time scientists studied the effect on plants, the effect on wildlife is well-known. For instance, contraceptives that are flushed out of the body eventually end up in rivers and lakes and have resulted in male fish exhibiting female characteristics.

How we dispose of pills is something we can control.

Redshaw pointed out that Europeans can return unused pills to pharmacies so they can be incinerated. Australia offers Return Unwanted Medicines or RUM Project. And the Canadian province of Alberta launched a similar service.

There is not a nationwide wide drug return program in the United States, though some counties have passed take-back ordinances.

“The take home message is that every one has a role to play,” said Redshaw. “Don’t chuck your medicine in the trash if you have a safer option. And don’t get pain pill prescriptions filled if you don’t intend to use them.”