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Pharmaceutical study

Research Question: What happens to the medicine in our urine?

Dates: 2014-present

Pharmaceuticals are present in urine and pass through sewage treatment plants largely unchanged, which is why pharmaceuticals are commonly found in rivers and drinking water supplies. By collecting urine and keeping it out of the wastewater stream, we can contain the pharmaceuticals before they reach sensitive aquatic ecosystems and water supplies.

There is reason to believe that these pharmaceuticals break down more completely in the soil ecosystem than they do in waterways, meaning that applying urine to cropland may control pharmaceuticals better than flushing it into the sewer. But that raises the question of whether these pharmaceuticals can end up in edible crops.

In a joint research project with the University of Michigan, University at Buffalo, and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, the Institute has been studying the presence and persistence of pharmaceuticals in urine-derived fertilizers, soils, groundwater, and crop tissues.

The final report is not available yet, but these two academic posters outlining methods and results provide preliminary information about this study of pharmaceutical levels in soil, water, and plants. Or, to summarize into a more tangible example consider this fact about caffeine, one of the drugs found in greatest abundance:

If Julius Caesar were still alive and had eaten a pound of urine-fertilized lettuce from our study every day of his life, by now he would have ingested as much caffeine as can be found in two large cups of coffee. Yes, pharmaceuticals are present, but at extremely low levels.

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