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Cancer drug agents harmful to wildlife?

Harmful neoplastic agents from cancer therapies are leaching into the environment but do we know enough about what this is doing to wildlife and other humans?

Chemotherapeutic drugs, also known as antineoplastic agents, that are prescribed to treat a range of cancer types, enter the aquatic environment via human excretion and wastewater treatment facilities. A review published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry indicates that very few studies have characterized the effects of antineoplastic agents that are released into aquatic environments.



Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide.   With an increasing incidence of cancers in growing and ageing populations, there has been a massive increase in cancer therapeutic drugs. 

Agents from these drugs are leaching into the environment through human excretion and wastewater.  Yet, we know little of the consequences on other humans and animal life in general. 

So, what do we know about the extent of the problem and potential risks?  The short answer is that we know too little, yet we do know that antineoplastic agents can be harmful to non-cancerous cells. 

Adverse health effects associated with antineoplastic agents (cancer chemotherapy drugs, cytotoxic drugs) in cancer patients and some non-cancer patients treated with these drugs are well documented. 

Harmful effects of neoplastic agents include liver and kidney damage, damage to the bone marrow, damage to the lungs and heart, infertility, effects on reproduction and the developing fetus in pregnant women, hearing impairment and cancer. 

Growing concern at the potential harmful effects led The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the US to publish an Alert for health care workers in 2004. 

The authors of the current review note that with hundreds of antineoplastic agents in late-stage clinical development, it is essential to understand the toxicity of these compounds in aquatic environments to inform future regulations.



As lead author Dr Chritopher Martyniuk at the Veterinary College of the University of Florida says:

“The global population is ageing, and cancer-fighting pharmaceuticals are being detected in water systems. We need to be proactive as a scientific community and identify potential gaps in our knowledge regarding the consequences of anti-neoplastic exposure in aquatic organisms.”  

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