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article imageResearchers: Lakes, rivers flooded with artificial sweeteners

By Megan Hamilton     Jun 9, 2015 in Environment
Brantford - Artificial sweeteners are found in many foods and beverages worldwide, but did you know that the fish are drinking them as well?
In a 2012 study, Canadian researchers discovered artificial sweeteners could be found in lakes, rivers and oceans worldwide.
The researchers are concerned about the effects of these sweeteners on wildlife and plants, CTV News reports. As part of World Oceans Day (June 8), scientists asked us to ponder where sweeteners wind up after they are eaten.
The Canadian study reported that the effect of these sweeteners in the water is largely unknown. Nevertheless, scientists should be on alert, said Amy Parente, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Penn.
The Lake Is Frozen. Lake Erie Feb. 25  2015 . North East  PA 16428 Halli Reid Park
The Lake Is Frozen. Lake Erie Feb. 25, 2015 . North East, PA 16428 Halli Reid Park
Parente conducted her own study in Lake Erie, and she was looking for sucralose, which is the substitute used by Splenda. As expected, the team found the sweetener in the water. While the other studies took samples from the mouths of the treatment plants, Parente tested the water around the lake's beaches, where the sweeteners were likely to be more diluted. She and her team found 0.15 micrograms of sucralose per every liter of water. This may not sound like much, but when added up, it means there may be up to 72 metric tons of sweetener floating in Lake Erie.
A variety of artificial sweeteners
A variety of artificial sweeteners
Bukowsky 18
When we take in sugar substitutes like Splenda and Sweet'N Low, our bodies aren't able to break them down, so they pass right on through. Once these sweeteners leave our bodies, wastewater treatment facilities have the same problem. Studies have also shown that they can't break down these complex chemicals either, so they wind up in oceans, lakes, and rivers in pretty much the same form in which they were eaten.
Each day, the equivalent of 81,000 to 190,000 cans of artificially flavored soda flow through Ontario's Grand River, say researchers from the University of Waterloo and Environment Canada. This river flows into Lake Erie, Anadolu Agency reports. As a result, as much as 72 metric tonnes (160,000 pounds) of sweetener are flowing into the lake.
In the earlier study, researchers tested for sucralose, cyclamate, saccharin, and acesulfame and found variations of each of these in tap water in Brantford, Ontario, CTV News reported.
In their studies, Parente and her students noted that the sweeteners tricked animals into thinking there was nutrition in the water, causing the creatures to not be hungry, and reducing the calorie intake needed for them to be healthy and reproduce, Anadolu Agency reports. This was especially true for the snails that Parente and her students studied--indeed, they did stop eating as much, and this affected their calorie intake and reproduction.
Parente thinks the sweeteners may have the same effects on other foraging animals.
"When people think about small animals and small organisms, they tend not to be concerned," she said.
A subsequent study, published by Environmental Science and Technology also discovered large amounts of sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame in the vicinity of wastewater treatment plants in New York State. This study found that the sweeteners may damage a plant's ability to perform photosynthesis, and that, in turn, may mean less food for animals that depend on the plants, creating a domino effect that may make its way to us.
Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners aren't the only chemicals that wind up in our water.
There have been numerous studies in the last decade that highlight pharmaceutical compounds in treated wastewater, rivers, lakes, and ground water. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), more than 80 percent of waterways sampled in the U.S. show traces of everyday medications like acetaminophen, hormones, blood pressure medicine, antibiotics, and codeine, the Watershed Council reports. In 1999 and 2000, samples from 139 streams in 30 states were tested for 95 chemicals. Some 82 of these 95 chemicals were detected at least once. For the most part, these chemicals were in very low concentrations (usually less than one part per billion). Mixtures of these chemicals weren't unusual; 75 percent of the streams had more than one, and about 50 percent had seven or more, and 34 percent had 10 or more.
Besieged by low levels of these pharmaceuticals, aquatic communities suffer harm. This is because many pharmaceutical compounds are specifically designed to affect living organisms. Although the concentrations in the environment are below acutely toxic levels, the biggest worry is the chronic and /or synergistic effects of these pharmaceutical "cocktails" we have released into the water. On a scientific level, it isn't known how damaging the discharge of these highly concentrated drug compounds into the nation's waterways will be, because exactly how these compounds will affect the creatures that ingest them isn't known.
The Watershed Council says that more scientific study and analysis will be needed to better understand the impact presented by these chemicals. However, researchers have already observed endocrine disruption in fish that inhabit areas close to wastewater treatment plants. Endocrine disruption is widespread and is the most frequently documented effect that pharmaceutical drugs have on aquatic wildlife. Constant exposure to endocrine disruptors--such as the compounds found in birth control, can feminize male fish and harm their ability to reproduce.
While there have only been a few studies, they definitely shouldn't be ignored, Parente says, per CTV News. She described them as the canary in the coal mine.
"I feel that out of these small organisms are early warnings," she said. "We need to head those warnings."
Another worrisome problem is the potential for the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria populations. Numerous studies have shown that if antibiotics are widespread in the environment, they are less effective.
For the scientists who are studying the effects of artificial sweeteners on aquatic communities, this is going to be a busy time. Work is underway all around the world, said John Spoelstra, a research scientist with Environment Canada.
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