Medications excreted by humans are flushed into the sewerage network, with many bypassing wastewater treatment and flowing into rivers and bays.
Associate Professor Bob Wong, Deputy Head of the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, leads a team of researchers investigating animal reproductive behaviour and the impacts of environmental change on behaviour and evolution.
Approximately 600 of 5000 commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals are found in waterways worldwide, Associate Professor Wong said.
“A lot of these medications end up in the environment and we know they can have profound impacts,” he said.
A recent publication by PhD student, Jake Martin, demonstrated a link in mosquitofish between lessened responses to predators and exposure to the widely-prescribed antidepressant fluoxetine, marketed as Prozac.
When Mr Martin exposed fish to the drug at realistic pollutant levels, the animals were less likely to adjust their activity in the presence of a predator or after an unsuccessful predator strike.
“We’re saying that this is likely to make them more vulnerable to predation, whereby if they are missed by the first strike, they are more vulnerable and more likely to be detected for a second strike,” Mr Martin said.
Associate Professor Wong said researchers are only beginning to understand the impacts of pharmaceutical waste on evolution.
“By influencing reproductive behaviour, you can affect the number and the quality of offspring that are produced, which can then have important consequences for the health of populations and also the survival of species,” he said.
“At the moment, it’s not an issue which has captured enough attention. I don’t think it’s getting the attention from regulators as I think it deserves.”
“When we are potentially using wastewater to water our lawns, when we’re potentially talking about recycling water for human use, it does raise these kinds of alarming concerns about are we exposing ourselves unnecessarily to pharmaceutical pollutants and are we exposing our wildlife unnecessarily to pharmaceutical pollutants?”
The Wong group is now monitoring populations of fish exposed to fluoxetine over a longer period, to investigate the long-term effects of antidepressant exposure.
“I think that is really a key next step, which is to look at what are the longer terms impacts that exposure could have on wildlife,” Associate Professor Wong said.
“We want to see what impacts long-term exposure might have on these fish across multiple generations, so we’ll be looking at their behaviour, we’ll also be looking at various morphological traits, such as the colours of the males and various other things, to see what effects could occur across generations.”
Increasing urbanisation is encroaching on traditional market garden areas on the fringes of Melbourne, with one grower expanding to new ground and an underutilised water supply in South Gippsland.
Schreurs & Sons is a third-generation family business based in Clyde, on the edge of Melbourne’s south-east suburbs, producing celery, leeks and baby leaf varieties of spinach, rocket and snow pea tendrils.
Dutch immigrant Joe Schreurs originally founded the farm at Dingley around 50 years ago and later relocated to Clyde to escape the wave of suburban development in the early 1970’s.
Now, the third generation of the family is facing a similar urbanisation dilemma to their forbears.
The older generation, who still owns the five Clyde properties, is selling the land for housing development as quickly as current business owners Adam, Ben and Chris Schreurs can find new land to relocate the business.
“Water’s what we look for first, that’s the hardest part to get. Water, then soil and climate, basically,” Adam Schreurs said.
With this in mind, the Schreurs purchased a 900-acre former dairy farm, over 100 kilometres away at Middle Tarwin in South Gippsland and have since converted around 160 acres of its fertile soil for celery production.
They had considered established irrigation districts such as East Gippsland but preferred the shorter distance from Middle Tarwin to their distribution facility at Clyde, Mr Schreurs said.
Mr Schreurs said they purchased water licences from farmers upstream on the Tarwin River, which enables them to pump water from the river into storage dams during the winter.
“We aim to be able to sustain ourselves out of the dam fully through the drier months of the year without drawing on the river, so we use about 3 megalitres per year per acre.”
Mr Schreurs said water allocation regulations currently prevent them from pumping extra water, beyond their normal allocation, from the river when it is in flood.
“If people are sensible about it we could pump the water when the river’s flooding, store it in dams and use it in the dry times,” he said.
A Southern Rural Water (SRW) spokesperson said that although major modernisation investments are focused on existing irrigation districts, they are monitoring the expansion of irrigated horticulture in South Gippsland and are planning to automate meter reading in the region.
“There may well be an opportunity for SRW to be more proactive in working with industry and individual growers in the planning for the expansion of water-intensive industries into areas that have historically been used for other purposes such as dairy or beef production.”
“Water trading is a strong focus for SRW and we will continue to look for ways to improve access to water via trading rules and systems.”
In planning for future expansions, Mr Schreurs is also interested in alternative water sources, including desalinated water from the Victorian Desalination Plant or high quality recycled water from sewerage treatment facilities.
Southern Rural Water confirmed there are no plans to source water from the Victorian Desalination Plant for agricultural customers; however, they are “continually talking with other water sector agencies and industry bodies to investigate all viable options to improve water security for farmers across all of its regions”.
Victoria Police have stressed the importance of safely securing loads on vehicles.
Acting Senior Sergeant Jason Hullick, who leads the Bass Coast Highway Patrol, says his officers respond to potentially hazardous debris on local roads several times per week.
“A lot of the stuff is treated seriously or as a semi-urgent response because of the potential for that to cause injury,” he said.
The most common items include firewood, bales of hay and metal objects which have broken off vehicles, as well as smaller items such as bags and work boots.
Mr Hullick recalls an incident where an unrestrained tyre was dislodged from a trailer, striking a motorcyclist.
“The person who was driving the ute and trailer was charged with causing an injury to that motorcyclist because that tyre wasn’t tied down properly,” he said.
Mr Hullick is aware of motorists removing hazards from the road but he stresses the importance of not placing themselves in danger.
“A lot of people won’t ring in but you will see a lot of debris on the sides of the roads, so at some point it’s fair to say that debris would have been on the road somewhere,” he said.
Mr Hullick said the “vast majority” of motorists safely secure their loads, adding that the heavy vehicle industry is generally compliant.
He said his officers interact most often with local tradespeople and farmers who are “going around the corner” and do not believe they need to tie down their tools and materials.
Leongatha-based Ryan’s Transport carries general freight, bricks and steel mesh on their B-Double trailers, as well as on smaller tray trucks for local deliveries.
Tom Ryan says his family’s business has established policies for their truck drivers, stipulating correct loading and restraining procedures.“Probably in the heavy vehicle industry, I think it’s very well publicised and you’ve got groups such as the Victorian Transport Association and VicRoads themselves, that produce a lot of good gazettes covering all sorts […] of loads,” he said.
He often observes customers picking up goods from their warehouse not restraining their loads.
“We’re quite adamant with them, they have to restrain it. When they drive out the gate, they have to be right,” he said.
Expectant mothers in many small rural communities lack much-needed access to specialist doctors in the field of pregnancy and childbirth, experts say.
While pregnancy is an exciting time for mothers, it can be terrifying for those experiencing complications, particularly in rural areas distanced from large metropolitan or regional hospitals with specialist expertise and facilities.
In Leongatha, a town of 5000 people 135 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, a small team of five General Practitioners are qualified to provide obstetric care for low to medium risk patients.
High-risk patients must travel to the nearest regional centre to visit specialist obstetricians because Leongatha does not offer regular visiting consultations.
Leongatha mother Helen Pickering is expecting her second child and is concerned with the lack of specialist obstetricians, particularly the perils of travelling to a larger regional hospital if complications arise.
“It’s obviously becoming an issue because there’s no specialist there in the last week of my pregnancy, when things could go wrong,” she said.
The birth of her first child 10 years ago involved a last-minute complication requiring the local doctors to reposition the baby and deliver using “cups”, to avoid a posterior birth.
The alternative, a Caesarean birth, would have required a specialist anaesthetist to travel almost an hour from the Latrobe Valley to assist.
Ms Pickering said the risk of stillbirth and other complications with her second child is heightened because of her age, however the absence of other risk factors means specialist involvement throughout the pregnancy had not been necessary.
Instead, the GP team has recommended more regular appointments and ultrasounds for Ms Pickering, with the option of inducing the birth a week earlier to reduce potential risks.
Leongatha Healthcare GP Obstetrician Dr Elise Ly said a specialist obstetrician would only travel from another area in extreme circumstances.
“The reality of Australia is you can’t have everyone living close to a tertiary centre,” Dr Ly said.
The Leongatha Hospital delivers about 200 babies a year and provides an operating theatre for the one in five births that by Caesarean section.
GP Obstetrician Dr Sewellyn Gale said pathology and radiology services are available but the hospital lacks a special care nursery for critically ill babies and access to extra blood products.
Dr Ly said the GP obstetrician qualification, which trains general practitioners in primary obstetrics care, ensures they are prepared not only for regular births but also for managing complications and emergencies.
“That’s sort of the expected standard, that if you’re going to provide an obstetrics service and if you’re going to provide theatre services, the people that are providing the services need to be trained in some sort of ‘first aid’ for obstetrics emergencies, before being transferred,” Dr Ly said.
Dr Gale said the service could only provide short-term urgent care for more complex obstetrics emergencies, such as pre-term babies, requiring a specialist obstetrician and more advanced facilities.
“It depends on the level of complexity. So the next step after us would be the regional centres at Traralgon and Warragul,” Dr Gale said.
If it is beyond the capabilities of the nearest regional hospitals, patients are transferred to Melbourne, often to Monash Medical Centre.
GP Obstetrician Dr Joel Fanning said they have to take extra precaution when transferring women in emergency care to a regional hospital because of the potential for complications while being relocated, as well as possible delays if an ambulance is not immediately available.
“You have to take into account the potential for her to progress on the road, so it might be safer to deliver the baby here than to have her delivering in the ambulance on the way over to one of those services,” he said.
Dr Fanning said patient satisfaction remains high because the local service provides individualised care, unlike hospitals in metropolitan areas in which patients may become “lost in the system”.
“The personalised element is wonderful. As health professionals, we enjoy that and I think that the patients enjoy it as well because they have continuity of care,” Dr Fanning said.
“Without bagging the tertiary centres, I think that from my point of view and I think from my patients’ point of view, they have a high level of satisfaction because of the personalised care,” he said.
Dr Ly said there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to obstetrics care.
“I don’t think we’re bagging anyone out, I just think there’s pros and cons of big hospital systems and smaller hospital systems, and being aware of them both means that you can address them,” Dr Ly said.
In order to improve rural maternity services, Dr Fanning said more funding should be directed towards GP obstetricians, particularly to cover after hours work.
“It should be highly valued by the people deciding how much medical staff are remunerated,” Dr Fanning said.
David McAlpine is studying a Science and Arts double degree at Monash University and is a freelance science and health journalist. He tweets as @dreamingscience
This article was first published by Mojo News, Monash Journalism’s online magazine www.mojonews.com.au
South Gippsland will benefit from a new connection to the Melbourne water network, with the Victorian Desalination Plant ensuring supply during drought.
The $43 million Lance Creek Water Connection Project will supply four towns with Melbourne water, when completed in June 2019.
A combination of new and existing pipelines will feed from the 82 kilometre pipeline connecting Cardinia Reservoir in Melbourne’s South-East with the Desalination Plant at Wonthaggi, said South Gippsland Water civil engineer, John Pruyn.
“The pipeline will receive Melbourne water from the Melbourne water supply system, so it’s not necessarily desalinated water. If the Desalination Plant is not operating and we require water, we can get water back feeding from Cardinia Reservoir. If the Desalination Plant is running and we require water, we would get water from the Desalination Plant,” he said
“It’s a very exciting and major project for the region and it secures water supplies over the next 50 years to Korumburra, Poowong, Loch and Nyora.”
South Gippsland Water concluded the connection was preferred to investing in surface supplies such as reservoirs, as it offers a higher level of water supply security, allows for future economic growth and permits the ‘agricultural sector to use additional flows’.
Although drought-proof pipeline connections to agricultural properties is not within the scope of the project, farmers will be able to purchase water from existing filling stations, Mr Pruyn said.
With 1100 dairy cows to milk, Inverloch dairy farmers Warren and Kerrie Redmond deeply appreciate how precious water is.
Low rainfall during the spring of 2015 led to a water shortage in this area, with the three Redmond farms among those most affected.
“It’s like gold to me, especially when you’ve run out of water. It gets really scary; how you’re going to look after your cows,” Mr Redmond said.
In order for their business to survive, the Redmond’s collaborated with nearby farmers to invest $140,000 in a fifteen kilometre pipeline, which pumped water over four months to their properties, from a disused basin at Inverloch.
Mr Redmond said the pipeline and trucking water was expensive but necessary to maintain his livelihood, adding that the new Melbourne connection offered hope for future dry periods.
The link to the Melbourne network is also beneficial for local industry, with the new pipeline priming South Gippsland for the next 50 years of economic growth.
Glenn Falcke, General Manger of Operations at Burra Foods, said a secure water supply is of “paramount” importance to the Korumburra dairy processor, which manufactures milk powder and infant formula.
Mr Falcke said Burra Foods is now able to expand, adding that investment by other industries in the region is bound to grow.
“We’ve got the electricity, we’ve got the gas, we’ve got the waste water treatment capabilities, we just didn’t have the water. Now we will have that, it opens the doors up for a lot of people I would have thought.”
Youth homelessness in rural areas is a symptom of complex social issues, worsened by limited services, education and employment, says a Gippsland care provider.
Mark Tanti, the Family and Relationships Program Manager of CatholicCare in Gippsland, leads a team of counsellors who frequently collaborate with other agencies such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, to provide counselling services for those who are experiencing homelessness.
He says that family breakdown, combined with family violence, sexual abuse, trauma and drug and alcohol issues, are key influences to the “hidden problem” of rural youth homelessness.
“It’s not a badge of honour that you wear, it’s really a badge of shame and it’s a symptom of all these other things that are going on,” he said.
Mr Tanti observes that rural families are subject to increasing pressures, arising from loss of employment in the midst of local industry closures and dairy industry woes, with family breakdown causing young people to find themselves on the streets.
“They rely on their networks and someone in their network will give them a bed or give them a couch and sometimes there will be all sorts of strings attached to that generosity,” he said.
A report released by Homelessness Australia this year cited that limited opportunities for education and employment in rural areas, combined with poor availability of access to care services and transport, can force young people to either leave for metropolitan areas or stay and face hardship.
Mr Tanti emphasises that local support services and public support is crucial to helping those experiencing homelessness, given that society at large is affected by the issue.
Ian Gough, Manager of Consumer Programs at the Council to Homeless Persons, echoes this sentiment and says that homelessness generates a moral, ethical and financial cost to the community.
“There’s a real cost in leaving people in homelessness,” he said.