Tamiflu Drug Could
Be In Your Drinking Water
The premier flu-fighting drug is contaminating rivers downstream
of sewage-treatment facilities, researchers in Japan confirm.
The source: urinary excretion by people taking oseltamivir phosphate,
best known as Tamiflu.
Concerns are now building that birds, which are natural influenza
carriers, are being exposed to waterborne residues of Tamiflus
active form and might develop and spread drug-resistant strains
of seasonal and avian flu.
For their new study, Gopal Ghosh and his colleagues at Kyoto
University sampled water discharged from three local sewage treatment
plants and water at several points along two rivers into which
the treated water flowed. Sampling started early in December 2008,
as flu season got underway. The researchers sampled again at the
height of the seasonal flus onslaught in early February
and again as infection rates waned.
Tamiflus active form, oseltamivir carboxylate or OC, turned
up in the treated sewage on every occasion, the researchers report
online September 28 in Environmental Health Perspectives. Values
were in the low nanograms per liter range during the first and
last samplings, and reached a high of almost 300 ng/L at one outflow
during the flus peak, a week when there were 1,738 recorded
flu cases in Kyoto.
River residues showed up during only that second sampling
from low nanogram levels at most sampling points to a high of
190 ng/L in a portion of the Nishitakase River where treated sewage
accounts for 90 percent of the flow.
Computer modeling has shown that OC should survive sewage treatment,
notes Wolf von Tümpling Jr. of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental
Research, a federal institute in Magdeburg, Germany. Ghoshs
team is now the first to confirm this, he says. Von Tümplings
own data show that once exposed to sunlight, OC will break down,
albeit slowly. Concentrations would fall at best by half every
three weeks, he says.
If correlations predicted by earlier studies are correct, concentrations
measured at some river sites in the new Kyoto study seem high
enough to lead to antiviral resistance in waterfowl, Ghosh
And the Kyoto team didnt test during a pandemic, when Tamiflu
prescription rates might be 10 times higher, von Tümpling
Indeed, the expected coincident hits by seasonal and H1N1 swine
flu this winter, could send Tamiflu use skyrocketing. In a July
14 letter, Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner Joshua
Sharfstein noted that there is no adequate, approved and
available alternative to the emergency use of certain oseltamivir
phosphate products for the treatment and prophylaxis of influenza.
Once ingested, virtually all Tamiflu will end up in the environment
in the active form, notes environmental chemist Jerker Fick of
Umeå University in Sweden. The reason: Tamiflu becomes active
once the body converts it into a carboxylate form. Roughly 80
percent of an ingested dose becomes this OC, which the body eventually
excretes. The body sheds the remaining 20 percent of Tamiflu in
its original form, but this phosphate form is immediately turned
into the active, carboxylate form when it reaches a water treatment
plant, he says.
Two years ago, Ficks team published data showing that most
sewage-treatment technologies will remove zero percent
of any OC present. And ducks love hanging out around warm, nutrient-rich
outflows of treated water during winter-flu season. While sampling
for waterborne OC last year in Japan, I saw it myself,
If Tamiflu resistance does develop in exposed birds, the affected
flu strains will probably be conventional seasonal and avian flu
strains, which claim thousands of lives each year, and not H1N1.
Thats because H1N1 seems to bypass birds as it spreads among
people, notes William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine
at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville,
He also notes that U.S. policy is more conservative than Japans
when it comes to Tamiflu use. Federal guidelines, he says, recommend
that Tamiflu be reserved for treatment of the very sick
and anyone who is immunocompromised.