Must Be Something in the Water

Have you ever wondered what’s in your water? Most of us have relatively good water out of the tap, and we don’t think twice about drinking it or cooking with it. But then there’s stuff like this, which is disturbing:

It’s not news that human beings dump a lot of stuff into lakes and rivers. The evidence is all around us—massive blooms of algae from fertilizer runoff, stunted fish and dead waterfowl from mine tailings, and oil spills. But that is stuff we’re used to thinking about as pollution, and they’re the sort of effects—die-offs and deformity—that we’re used to worrying about. What about the stuff we actually put into our own bodies? What effect does that have when it gets out into the world? And what happens to a species—or, for that matter, an entire ecosystem—when we put it on drugs?
In a paper published Thursday in Science, a team of Swedish researchers tried to provide at least part of an answer. They first tested various Swedish bodies of water for the levels of an anti-anxiety drug called oxazepam—like many drugs, oxazepam doesn’t get filtered out by sewage treatment plants. In a lab, the researchers then placed wild European perch in tanks with comparable drug levels. The researchers found that the drugs were, indeed, having an effect: Even at dosages at the lower end of what they found in the wild, the fish in the oxazepam tanks were less social than those in the control tanks. The drugged fish put more distance between themselves and other fish, and they ate faster than normal. At higher dosages, the researchers also found an increase in what they termed “boldness,” the lack of hesitation with which the fish entered an unfamiliar area.

Of course, it’s not just oxazepam in our water; it’s most everything we secrete:

As Klaminder underlines, he and his fellow researchers only looked at one fish and one drug. But ecosystems are full of plants and animals that react to chemicals in different ways, and our rivers and lakes are increasingly full of a crazy cocktail of pharmaceuticals–from Prozac to the estrogen from birth control pills–many of which doctors would probably hesitate to prescribe together.

I referred to the problem of estrogen in our water as one of the problems with widespread contraception use here, in a piece which I think should have got more play than it did. (But you never know which online piece will be a hit, and which will not.)

Another instance, then, of a broader point worth making again and again: science and technology are not unalloyed goods. Innovations introduced by science and tech into natural and cultural ecologies always alter things.

Now Benedict has called for attention to“an ecology of man”:

The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.

It’s the job not only of scientists but those interested in human ecology, the “ecology of man,” along with media ecologists to analyze and evaluate the changes science and tech introduce into human culture as we humans live in nature.

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