Water Supply

by JASON | 2:00 PM in |

A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.

Developed to promote human health and well being, certain pharmaceuticals are now attracting attention as a potentially new class of water pollutants. Such drugs as antibiotics, anti-depressants, birth control pills, seizure medication, cancer treatments, pain killers, tranquilizers and cholesterol-lowering compounds have been detected in varied water sources.

Where do they come from? Pharmaceutical industries, hospitals and other medical facilities are obvious sources, but households also contribute a significant share. People often dispose of unused medicines by flushing them down toilets, and human excreta can contain varied incompletely metabolized medicines. These drugs can pass intact through conventional sewage treatment facilities, into waterways, lakes and even aquifers. Further, discarded pharmaceuticals often end up at dumps and land fills, posing a threat to underlying groundwater.

Farm animals also are a source of pharmaceuticals entering the environment, through their ingestion of hormones, antibiotics and veterinary medicines. (About 40 percent of U.S.-produced antibiotics are fed to livestock as growth enhancers.) Manure containing traces of such pharmaceuticals is spread on land and can then wash off into surface water and even percolate into groundwater.

Along with pharmaceuticals, personal care products also are showing up in water. Generally these chemicals are the active ingredients or preservatives in cosmetics, toiletries or fragrances. For example, nitro musks, used as a fragrance in many cosmetics, detergents, toiletries and other personal care products, have attracted concern because of their persistence and possible adverse environmental impacts. Some countries have taken action to ban nitro musks. Also, sun screen agents have been detected in lakes and fish.

Pharmaceutical compounds, or prescription medications, make their way into the environment through the discharge from wastewater treatment plants. While this issue is relatively new to the general public, water supply professionals have been conducting research on trace levels of pharmaceuticals in drinking water for over 10 years. As technological improvements increase the sensitivity of laboratory instruments to detect various compounds, it is not a surprise that more compounds are being found in water supplies. However, it is difficult to understand the meaning of concentrations in the parts per trillion range. A part per trillion is equivalent to a single drop in 1,000 swimming pools or roughly one millionth of a dose of a prescription drug.

While there is still uncertainty whether these extremely low levels have any effect on humans, one toxicologist, Shane Synder, was quoted in a Los Angeles Times’ Jan. 30, 2006, article as saying, “All the data we have compiled indicates these concentrations are trivial to public health…” However there are many ongoing studies seeking answers.

You should know that currently there are no regulatory standards or requirements to monitor for these substances. Also, no approved methods of detection have been established.

According to the National Catholic Register, EPA-funded scientists at the University of Colorado studied fish in a mountain stream near Boulder, Colo., two years ago. When they netted 123 trout and other fish downstream from the city's sewer plant, they found 101 were female, 12 were male, and 10 were strange "intersex" fish with male and female features. It's "the first thing that I've seen as a scientist that really scared me," university biologist John Woodling told the Denver Post. The main culprits were found to be estrogens and other steroid hormones from birth-control pills and patches that ultimately ended up in the creek after being excreted in urine into the city's sewers.

A "GENDER-bending" cocktail of hormones, steroids and antibiotics is passing through the NSW sewage system untreated, an environmental group has warned.

Compounds and chemicals from substances such as birth control pills were not being detected or treated by the state's sewage treatment plants (STPs), according to a report by the Nature Conservation Council of NSW (NCC).

"These chemicals and compounds are passed through the human body in varying concentrations and follow the usual path through the sewage treatment process," the NCC said. The report found that NSW STPs were failing to detect or treat endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) - also known as "gender-benders" - contained in contraceptive pills, some pesticides, steroids and hormone treatments.

The chemicals have been shown to alter the gender characteristics of wildlife, posing a danger to humans if passed into the food chain, the group claimed. They were also passed on by fish stocks contaminated near STP outfalls, food crops sprayed with reused effluent or fertilised with recycled biosolids, and animal stocks consuming soil or feed contaminated with reused effluent or biosolids, the report said.

NCC executive officer Kathryn Ridge warned if STPs failed to identify and treat EDCs they would pass directly into the environment. "The main characteristic of these compounds and chemicals is that they do not break down or dissolve once they enter a waterway," she said. "Rather, they accumulate and if fish or birds consume them they will enter a food chain that includes humans.

Clinics are reporting a doubling in the number of operations being carried out over just one year. According to surgeons, the male breasts examined are similar in structure to those of women and are not simply fat deposits caused by overeating.

They believe the condition, called gynecomastia, is caused by traces of the female contraceptive pill in tap water and hormones used to promote the growth of farm animals.

Yannis Alexandrides, a surgeon at the Kosmeticos clinic in Harley Street, central London, carried out one male breast reduction a month four years ago but is now doing one a week.

“Hormones contained in the food we eat, particularly fast food, may be one of the reasons why we are seeing this increase,” said Alexandrides.

Carnegie Mellon University chemists say they have discovered an environmentally friendly way to destroy harmful female sex hormones that contaminate rivers and streams and sometimes drinking water.

Estrogens enter the environment after being excreted by livestock that naturally produce these chemicals, or are flushed into sewers by the estimated 16 million American women who take birth control pills.

Until now, no practical way existed to break down these hormones in wastewater. They have been linked to developmental disorders and reproductive complications in fish and other wildlife, and could pose a threat to human health, said CMU chemist Colin Horwitz, whose findings will be presented today at a meeting of the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Washington.

"These chemicals have been found in the environment at very low levels, but they are very potent," said Gerald LeBlanc, an environmental toxicologist at North Carolina State University. "The goal is to break these things down so they lose their estrogenic activity in a way that doesn't create other problems."

Local water treatment facilities do not test for estrogens because there are no standard methods for measuring or removing them, said Stan States, water quality manager for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.