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Antidepressants, Other Drugs in Water Linked to Autism

Jan 1, 2012 | Parker Waichman LLP

Low levels of antidepressant and other psychoactive drugs in public water supplies is triggering genetic patterns similar to autism sufferers in fish living in the water.

According to a report on a recent study from Idaho State University, these pharmaceuticals are largely not absorbed by the body, passing through into waste water and eventually into the public water supply. Water treatment facilities have proven unable to remove the drug traces from the supply, meaning they are eventually recycled into the system.

Fish living in the waters that feed public systems are exposed constantly to the drugs in the water and researchers were able to determine that this exposure has altered their genetic pattern, as they’ve begun developing patterns similar to humans with autism. Although the concentrations of antidepressant drugs are very low in these water supplies, it is strong enough to alter the genes of fish and the study worries about its effect on a developing fetus.

There have been a recent flurry of studies which attempt to find a cause for autism, notably the spike in autism disorders diagnosed in the last two decades or more. While theories have suggested everything from environmental exposure to the early childhood vaccines may be responsible for the spike in autism cases in the last 20 years, several more recent studies suggest that mothers taking antidepressant drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants may face a greater risk of having a baby with an autism disorder.

For the study, researchers mixed a “cocktail” of an epilepsy drug, carbamazepine, with the SSRIs fluoxetine and venlafaxine, at a low concentration and exposed fathead minnows to the water for more than two weeks. To the researchers’ surprise, the exposure only affected a specific set of genes, the same genes that are typically affected in humans suffering from an autism disorder. To test the fish response to the drugs, researchers startled fish in the study and found those exposed to the drug cocktail in their water were more likely to panic and behaved differently than a control group.

The study stresses that expecting mothers should not panic about the quality of their drinking water, at least not yet. Studies on fish do not exactly translate into human development but the group plans follow-up studies on a drug-tainted water supply on mammals, first starting with pregnant mice.

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