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Worms absorb human pollutants

By Peter N. Spotts / February 28, 2008



Beware the earthworm wearing Chanel No. 5. Scientists at the University of Colorado at Pueblo, Eastern Washington University, and the US Geological Survey have for the first time found earthworms in the field bearing traces of a range of compounds used in personal-care products, including perfumes, as well as medicines used by people and livestock.

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Other studies have reported that earthworms accumulate contaminants. But this is the first major evidence outside the lab, the team says.

Over the years, concerns have grown about the effects of drugs and cosmetics in liquid effluent from treatment plants on aquatic and marine life. The higher up the food chain a compound migrates, the higher the levels of these chemicals researchers find in top level predators.

The path from people to soil travels through sewage-treatment plants that sell the treated solids as manure or fertilizer to small farms or large-scale land-reclamation projects, according to the scientists.

The researchers not only are interested in the effects the accumulating chemicals have on earthworms themselves, but on the animals that feed on the worms. The results appear in a recent issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.