A Risk Analysis for Emerging Contaminants in Coastal Massachusetts

Environmental pollution by pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) is an emerging area of intense concern. This wide range of substances includes prescription drugs and over-the-counter products such as cosmetics, sunscreens, and shampoos. They are manufactured in enormous quantities, especially in densely populated regions; some portion of every pill, lotion, and hair care product used enters the environment every day through human excretion, disposal of unused medications and cosmetics, and greywater (wastewater generated from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing).

With increases in both human population size and pharmaceutical usage, these chemicals are being discovered in streams, lakes, and the coastal ocean, and there is growing evidence that they can have profound effects on water quality and wildlife. Some negative impacts already observed in animals and ecosystems include organ damage, feminization of male fish and frogs, antibiotic resistance, and delayed or disrupted larval development.

The New England coast is densely populated and is therefore likely to have some amount of PPCPs being discharged into the ocean. But since much of the effort in surveying PPCPs in the environment thus far has focused on fresh waters, we don't know much yet about the presence, concentrations, or biological effects of PPCPs in our marine environment. Measuring PPCPs in the environment is technically challenging, expensive, and labor-intensive. Identifying which pollutants (if any) are likely to be present is therefore a necessary first step in setting up a monitoring program.

In partnership with the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA), MIT Sea Grant is conducting a risk assessment for PPCPs in Massachusetts coastal waters. This includes evaluation of potential sources within coastal watersheds (e.g. hospitals or drug manufacturers), determination of the potential for filtration and removal through sewage treatment, and appraisal of likely effects on ocean life in Massachusetts Bay.

This page was last modified: November 19, 2014 11:59 am


Juliet Simpson
Coastal Ecologist


Links for PPCPs In The Environment