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Prescriptions for disaster: our over-the-top legal drug problem generates a whole new class of pollution.

THE ECONOMY SEEMS HOPELESSLY STALLED. IRAQ shows all indications of morphing into a Vietnamish quagmire. National health care remains a sham system run by a few for a few, and federal deficits and national debt are surging. Yet most Americans seem stubbornly, almost perversely placid. What happened to good old-fashioned outrage? Have we achieved a zen-like indifference to our petty temporal woes? Has television permanently clicked off critical thinking? Are we finally members of a culture so consumed by consumption that nothing else matters?

Nah. We're just stoned out of our gourds. Confronted by the troubling realities and difficult choices our warring world offers up, a lot of us have decided to just say "So what?" and reach for a prescription bottle. Americans bought 3.4 billion prescriptions last year, an average of about 12 prescriptions each. That's an all-time high and nearly double the number of prescriptions purchased just a decade ago.

While the government continues a crackdown on medical-marijuana grannies, a lot of us evade the unpleasantness associated with illegal drug use by getting a legal high with any number of mood- and mind-altering prescription drugs currently flooding the U.S. market. We used to be the Prozac nation, but throw some Zoloft, Xanax, Ritalin, and, why not, Viagra into the mix, and you're talking party!

Prescription spending last year in the United States totaled $216 billion wholesale--an increase of almost 12 percent in just 12 months. Those double-digit annual increases show no signs of tapering off any time soon. Antidepressants have been crowded out of the top ranks by drugs like Lipitor and Nexium--aimed at cholesterol reduction and heartburn, respectively--and other heavily marketed nouveau drugs that target the physical calamities of our high-stress and poor-diet era.

The dangers associated with America's legal drug problem can be sadly direct. Recently, pharmaceutical companies had to come clean on a number of drug studies whose results were hidden when negative and exaggerated when positive, and medical researchers now worry over a connection between antidepressants and an increase in suicidal thoughts and violent behavior among teens and children.

But our cultural drug addiction has other less obvious downers. Massive profits generated by boutique drug sales further empower the already mighty pharmaceutical manufacturers. Their legions of lobbyists are busy even as we speak, "helping" Congress devise further reform of the ailing health care system that will no doubt perpetuate the for-profits' long reign of error over American health.

Our heavy drug use has also become an environmental problem. No, this is not your father's industrial waste. As our culture, economy, and habits change, so do our opportunities to interact with the environment for good or ill.

You probably know already how chemical runoff from farm fields and suburban lawns ends up polluting rivers and streams. Now we get to worry about drug runoff from people. Most prescriptions are not completely synthesized by their users. Those leftover chemicals have to go somewhere after you flush.

Prescription pollution is part of a new generation of emerging ecological contaminants. Drug by-products that can include high levels of antibiotics and powerful psychotropic chemicals are ending up downstream in ground or surface water where they will have an as yet unknown effect on aquatic life and the safety of our drinking water.

DRUG POLLUTION IS ONLY LIKELY TO GET WORSE AS THE population grows older and drug use rises accordingly. The Census Bureau projects that 39.7 million Americans will be 65 or older in 2010--about 4 million more than today.

Most of us have been trained to simply do as the doctor orders when it comes to our health, but it's becoming increasingly clear that U.S. doctors have been overeager to overprescribe. Taking charge of your personal health these days means looking beyond what may appear a quick or easy physical or emotional fix via a prescription drug. That's good stewardship of your own person that doubles as good stewardship of the environment we share.

KEVIN CLARKE, senior editor at U.S. CATHOLIC and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:margin notes
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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