Health Highlights: March 10, 2008

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

U.S. Drinking Water Contains Wide Variety of Pharmaceuticals

A broad range of prescription and over-the-counter drugs are present in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, according to an Associated Press investigation that raises questions about the potential impact on human health.

The investigation included reviews of scientific studies and federal drinking water databases, visits to environmental study sites and water treatment plants, and interviews with hundreds of experts and officials.

Among the findings:

  • Pharmaceutical drugs have been detected in the drinking water of 24 major metropolitan areas.
  • Testing in Philadelphia revealed 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water.
  • A sex hormone was found in San Francisco's drinking water.
  • A metabolized angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing drug carbamazepine was found in the drinking water of 850,000 people in northern New Jersey.
  • A portion of the drinking water supplied to 18.5 million people in Southern California contained anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications.
  • Six pharmaceuticals were detected in the drinking water for Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas.

When people take a medication, the body doesn't use all of it. The excess is flushed out with other wastes and ends up in wastewater treatment plants, which discharge treated water into rivers, lakes or reservoirs, the AP said.

The concentrations of pharmaceuticals found in drinking water were extremely low and the exact risks to human health from long-term exposure aren't fully understood, the AP reported. However, recent research has shown that such drugs cause alarming effects on human cells and wildlife.


Gene Variant Linked to Gout

A gene variant that may increase a person's risk of gout has been identified by Scottish researchers, who said their finding may lead to improved treatments for the painful joint condition, BBC News reported.

In healthy people, uric acid is removed by the kidneys and passed out of the body in urine. Gout occurs when there's a buildup of uric acid in the blood, forming crystals in the joints, resulting in inflammation, stiffness and pain. Diet is believed to play a major role in the development of gout. However, many people whose eating habits would seem to put them at risk for gout don't develop the disease.

This new study, by researchers at the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh, may help explain why. The researchers found that a variant of the SLC2A gene appears to make it more difficult for the body to remove excess uric acid from the blood, BBC News reported.

The SLC2A gene plays an important role in determining the efficiency of uric acid transport across the membranes of the kidney, the researchers explained. Depending on the form of the gene they inherit, some people will have a higher or lower risk of gout.

The researchers said it may be possible to develop new drugs that target SLC2A, and the protein it controls, in order to better treat gout, BBC News reported. The findings may also lead to improved diagnosis of the condition.

The study was published in the journal Nature Genetics.


Probiotic Treatment May Benefit Kidney Stone Sufferers

Treatment with "friendly" bacteria may benefit people who suffer from recurrent kidney stones, suggests a Boston University study of about 500 people, BBC News reported.

The study found that those who naturally carry the bacterium Oxalobacter formigenes in their gut were 70 percent less likely to have recurrent calcium oxalate kidney stones. Calcium oxalate is the major component in up to 80 percent of kidney stones.

The study also found that O. formigenes was present in 38 percent of those with no kidney stones, compared to 17 percent of those with recurrent kidney stones, BBC News reported.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. The researchers are now investigating the possibility of using the bacteria as a probiotic treatment.


Texas Closes Shellfish Beds After Detecting Red Tide Organism

The microbe that produces what is known as red tide in coastal waters has been detected in some Texas shellfish beds, causing the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to close a number of bays to shellfish harvesting.

In addition to closing the shellfish beds at Aransas, Corpus Christi and Copano bays, the state has also issued a recall of oysters, clams and mussels because of an algae bloom of the Dinophysis organism, which can poison the shellfish and cause sickness in humans if they eat them.

According to a DSHS news release, all shellfish harvested from the affected bays since March 1 have been recalled from stores and restaurants. Texas state health officials said anyone who recently bought shellfish and think they may have come from the affected areas should call the stores where they were purchased to determine their origin.

The Dinophysis organism produces okadaic acid, which permeates shellfish and can cause diarrhea, nausea and cramping in humans. Boiling the shellfish will not remove the contamination, Texas officials said. The symptoms can begin within 30 minutes of consumption and can last for up to three days. The contamination usually is not fatal in humans.

Texas DSHS officials are monitoring the affected coastal shellfish beds to determine when they can be re-opened for harvesting. No cases of okadaic acid poisoning had yet been reported by March 8, the state said.

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