Chemotherapy drugs kill helpful bacteria in septic systems

Chemotherapy is cancer treatment with drugs, including cytotoxic drugs, which contain chemicals that prevent cells from reproducing or growing. Chemotherapy is responsible for the survival of many cancer victims.

A well-known side effect of chemotherapy drugs is that they cannot distinguish cancer cells from other fast-growing cells in our body. Chemo drugs attack the cells in the hair follicle, causing hair loss, and the cells lining our digestive tract, causing nausea.

What you may not know is that chemotherapy drugs have long half-lives, which is the time it takes chemicals to lose half of their effects. This means that when a cancer patient excretes the still-potent drug through their digestive system, toxic chemicals enter the sewage system.

For rural residents with their own septic system, chemotherapy drugs can be problematic. A septic tank uses bacteria to break down household sewage. High levels of antibiotics, toxins, or chemotherapy drugs can kill or prevent the growth of helpful anaerobic bacteria needed for the normal functioning of a septic system.

Dallas County Environmental Health Services advises residents with private sewage systems to pump out their tank after completing chemotherapy. For more information, call 515-993-3750.

Ann Cochran is the Health Navigation Coordinator for the Dallas County Department of Health.

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