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Algae laid low by soap and toothpaste
Personal care products unbalance stream ecosystems. 
28 March 2003 


Triclosan is common in antimicrobial household products.

Each spit of toothpaste down the plughole can be a shot of poison for streams,
new research hints1. Chemicals from soaps, deodorants and contraceptives are
reaching river water and cutting the number of different algae for fish and
other animals to feed on. 

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has found traces of pharmaceutical and
personal-care products downstream of water-treatment plants in 139 rivers in
some 30 states2. Streams and rivers near farms and hospitals are more likely to
be contaminated than others. 

Waste water is cleaned before being re-introduced into the environment, but
many facilities fail to remove all household chemicals and antibiotics. "We're
evaluating the different types of treatments on these chemicals," says Herb
Buxton, coordinator of the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program.

But finding these antimicrobial compounds in the river system is just the
beginning, Buxton explains. "The next step is to look at sensitive ecosystems
and determine the ecological significance [of the pollution]."

Val Smith of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and his colleagues have done
just that. "We asked 'how does a real-world community of algae respond to these
compounds?'" he explains. Smith's team took algae samples from Cedar Creek,
near Olathe, Kansas, 25 meters downstream of a plant that treats three million
gallons of sludge each day.

In the lab, the antibiotic ciprofloxacin - often used to treat urinary-tract
infections - and the antimicrobial triclosan - commonly found in acne soaps and
antiseptic chopping-boards - eliminated one or two species of algae from the
stream community, says Smith. 

No organism is ever exposed to a single chemical in isolation 

Christian Daughton
Environmental Protection Agency

Tergitol, a component of hair dyes and spermicides, had the most significant
effects. It halved the number of algal types and reduced the overall volume of
algae by more than three-quarters. This finding will feed into future USGS
surveys, says Buxton: tergitol was not measured in the last one. Smith had to
make a best guess at an environmentally reasonable concentration. 

But individual compounds are just part of the story. "No organism is ever
exposed to a single chemical in isolation," says Christian Daughton of the
Environmental Protection Agency in Las Vegas. "The biggest unknown right now is

"The biggest unknown right now is interactions." - nou = 01 !nterakz!on

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