SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

November 27, 2012

Flushed drugs taint waters


Drugs we flush affect our drinking water


The next generation of water pollution didn’t start at a factory, power plant or landfill.    It started in your house.   These pollutants are the unused drugs we flush down the toilet as well as the bits of medications that we pass from our bodies.

They include birth-control pills, antidepressants, blood-pressure medications and antibiotics.   Household cleaning products and detergents, insect repellent, caffeine from the stale coffee we don’t drink and even steroids also are detected.

  • Experts call them “emerging contaminants,” but not because they are new. They’ve been in our streams, rivers and lakes for decades. It’s the technology used to detect them that has recently come of age.

Many of these pollutants, which hospitals, pharmacies and factory farms dump into waste water, are measured in parts per trillion.   That’s a lot smaller than the standard concentrations of more common pollutants that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits in drinking water.   They are so small that there are no government limits, and many speculate that they don’t pose a health risk.

KYLE ROBERTSON DISPATCH Some worry that medications end up in our drinking water.

But research shows that estrogen and other birth-control drugs might cause male fish to develop ovaries. Other researchers say that there isn’t enough work being done to examine how a combination of such pollutants might affect wildlife and human health.

“You see very different effects with mixtures of contaminants as opposed to single compounds,” said Paige Novak, a University of Minnesota environmental engineer studying estrogenic effects on wildlife.   “I think some of these things are really subtle, and that makes them more difficult.”

  • A 2010 Ohio River study by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission found 158 compounds, including 118 “pharmaceuticals and personal-care products” were present in the waterway.

“No one had ever really done (this study) on a large river,” said John Spaeth, an aquatic biologist with the commission. “We wanted to have a base line of what type of contaminants we have here in the Ohio River.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is completing a survey looking for about 200 drugs and other chemicals in tap water at about 50 sites across the United States.   “That data is still being compiled,” the agency wrote in an emailed statement.

  • A 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study found traces of 12 antibiotics in the Scioto River and found three of them — azithromycin, roxithromycin and tylosin had passed through Columbus water treatment plants and made it into drinking water.

Lynn Kelly, the city’s water supply and treatment coordinator, said he’s optimistic that a new ozone bubble treatment system that’s being installed to help meet new federal drinking water standards could also remove the antibiotics.

“Ozone can break a lot of these chemical chains down,” Kelly said.

Novak said she’s hopeful that more research will help identify which, if any, of these compounds pose risks.

“There are just so many open questions,” she said.

“There are just so many open questions,” she said.      @CDEnvironment

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