Tens of Thousands of Pharmaceutical Doses Have Leaked into the Chesapeake Bay

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer


A new study in Environmental Science & Technology has found that leaky sewage infrastructure in Baltimore, Maryland, is leaking tens of thousands of doses of pharmaceuticals into the Chesapeake Bay each year. Researchers say that the drugs could have significant impacts on wildlife biology, development, and behavior that may have ripple effects for the rest of the ecosystem.

Why This Matters: These findings highlight two issues; threats to marine ecosystems and aging water system infrastructure in the United States. The Chesapeake Bay once had thriving populations of oysters; now, they’ve declined to just two percent of their former numbers. Researchers say that the concentrations and combinations of drugs found in the Bay are enough to significantly impact ecological processes. The report found that by upgrading water infrastructure to track combinations and concentrations of pharmaceuticals in water and more effectively remove the contaminants, regions like the Chesapeake Bay can prevent potential ecological devastation.

Critical Overdose

The researchers analyzed samples from six sites northwest of the Gwynns Falls watershed, screening for 92 pharmaceutical compounds. They found 37 compounds in the samples, most commonly trimethoprim, an antibiotic. 

The painkiller acetaminophen was also found in high concentrations and has been found to negatively impact the kidney, gill, and liver function of some fish. The researchers say that even smaller concentrations of these drugs can have a significant impact on marine life.

By pairing data on drug concentrations found at the Gwynns Falls outlet with discharge rates recorded by a nearby U.S. Geological Survey monitoring station, the researchers were able to determine how many doses of drugs were administered to the Chesapeake Bay by leaky pipes. They found tens of thousands of doses, including “30,000 adult doses of antidepressants, 1,700 doses of antibiotics, and about 30,000 tablets of acetaminophen.”

The study found that although only 1% of raw sewage from the Gwynns Falls watershed originates from leaky pipes, pharmaceutical pollution flowing from the latter presents different dangers. “Our findings show that plants and animals exposed to sewage from leaky pipes are receiving a different mix of compounds than those exposed to wastewater treatment plant effluent,” said Emma Rosi, senior co-author and aquatic ecologist at Cary Institute.

She and her team say that to protect marine ecosystems from harmful compounds, there must be investment in fixing pipe infrastructure and updating wastewater treatment systems to remove these contaminants. If passed, President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, currently awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives, would provide billions to cities and municipalities to update water infrastructure and remove lead pipes.

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