They are finding all kinds of drugs in the state's waterways: ulcer medications, estrogen, and animal growth promoters. The drugs are coming from two main sources: municipal wastewater treatment plants and hog waste lagoons.
"We're just come to grips that these things may be occurring," says research geochemist Mike Meyer. "We don't even know the level of their occurrence yet."
Scientists want to learn what impact the drugs in the water may have on humans. The bulk of the work in the Triangle will determine if it will make disease-causing bacteria more resistant to medications.
"You could have a disease outbreak and an animal herd that you could no longer effectively treat with antibiotics," says analytical chemist Joe Baumgarner. "The potential is there. If we wait until the disaster occurs, or if a disaster does occur, then it's too late."
Although the amount of drugs in the wastewater is barely a drop in a bucket, the potential danger is a concern for people who run the plants.
"Any antibiotics I can't imagine them to be in anything but minute quantities, but we really don't know that," says Susan Turback of theNorth Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.
The antibiotic issue is not only a concern with water, but the food we eat.
The dangerous food cycle starts with the same antibiotics in livestock feed. In turn, the bacteria builds up a resistance to the antibiotics that are used.
During meat and poultry processing, most, but not all of the bacteria is killed, which could lead to tainted meat. Medications may not work because the bacteria is resistant to drugs.
The best advice is to thoroughly cook any meat so the bacteria does not have a chance to survive.
The scientists emphasize their research may determine that the trace amounts of drugs are not harmful. The study will take several years.
TheNorth Carolina Pork Councildid not want to comment on the study.