Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Today in Water News

The past two days have not been good for news about the environment. Many commonly-used chemicals are dispersing through our waterways and finding their way into the food chain. Yesterday, the federal government released the results of research into the prevalence of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water.

Pharmaceuticals, along with trace amounts of caffeine, were found in the drinking water supplies of 24 of 28 U.S. metropolitan areas tested. The findings were revealed as part of the first federal research on pharmaceuticals in water supplies, and those results are detailed in an investigative report by the Associated Press set to be published today.

In addition to caffeine, the drugs found in water treated by the Washington Aqueduct include the well-known pain medications ibuprofen and naproxen, commonly found in Aleve. But there were also some lesser-known drugs: carbamazepine, an anti-convulsive to reduce epileptic seizures and a mood stabilizer for treating bipolar disorders; sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic that can be used for humans and animals in treating urinary tract and other infections; and monensin, an antibiotic typically given to cattle. In addition, the study uncovered traces of triclocarban, a disinfectant used in antibacterial soaps.

That the drugs were found so commonly nationwide highlights an emerging water dilemma that the public rarely considers. The drugs we use for ourselves and animals are being flushed directly into wastewater, which then becomes a drinking water source downstream. However, most wastewater and drinking water treatment systems, including Washington's, are incapable of removing those drugs.
Researchers found more drugs in other cities:
_Officials in Philadelphia said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city's watersheds.

_Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California.

_Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment plant, which serves 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey, and found a metabolized angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking water.

_A sex hormone was detected in San Francisco's drinking water.
Pharmaceuticals get into drinking water in several ways. The most obvious way is that people excrete some of any medications they take. Another major source is the livestock industry. Cattle in concentrated animal feeding operations receive large doses of steroids, antibiotics, and other drugs, some of which are then passed into waterways. Pets now frequently receive medications as well.

The federal government does not regulate the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water and wastewater, though it may do so in the near future. Unfortunately the safety of drinking water does not seem to be the primary motivation.
"We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency....

To the degree that the EPA is focused on the issue, it appears to be looking at detection. Grumbles acknowledged that just late last year the agency developed three new methods to "detect and quantify pharmaceuticals" in wastewater. "We realize that we have a limited amount of data on the concentrations," he said. "We're going to be able to learn a lot more."

While Grumbles said the EPA had analyzed 287 pharmaceuticals for possible inclusion on a draft list of candidates for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, he said only one, nitroglycerin, was on the list. Nitroglycerin can be used as a drug for heart problems, but the key reason it's being considered is its widespread use in making explosives.
Meanwhile, a report to the Maine legislature indicates that bird egg shells in the state contain traces of 100 industrial and environmental chemicals.
According to research to be presented to the Maine Legislature, all 60 eggs tested by biologists and chemists - taken from 23 wild species, inhabiting every major ecosystem in the state, from Kittery to Calais - carried at least trace amounts of the 100 chemicals, occasionally at levels believed to be harmful to the birds.

"We found mercury, flame-retardants, industrial repellents, transformer coolants, and pesticides in [the eggs of] birds that live on Maine's oceans, salt marshes, rivers, lakes, and uplands," said Wing Goodale, senior biologist with the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, the center for environmental science that carried out the research....

The study, the largest ever documenting historical and emerging contaminants in Maine birds, points to the pervasiveness of a new breed of pollutants: chemicals integral to products that barely existed a few decades ago, whether personal computers or stain-resistant clothing....

"What's surprising is, a lot of this stuff doesn't come from big production plants; it's just everyday material that's become a part of our lives," said Barry Mower, a contaminant specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which was not involved in the research. "It's also surprising - and worrisome - that these contaminants were found in such a wide variety of species."
The species with the highest levels of contaminants tended to be those with a close connection to waterways, such as bald eagle, peregrine falcon, great black-backed gull, belted kingfisher, and piping plover. While the study did not show harm to the birds tested, some may emerge as the levels of contaminants build in subsequent generations.

At least some states are taking action to reduce the flow of contaminants into our waterways. Virginia has joined Maryland in banning dish detergents that include phosphates. The ban will take effect in 2010 to give manufacturers and retailers time to develop alternate products.
Nutrients such as phosphorus, Skowronski found in her research, encourage the growth of algae, which is harmful in large quantities because it clouds the water and sucks out the oxygen that underwater plants and animals need to survive.

The result, ecologists say, is large areas where few creatures can live. A 2003 study by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that a dead zone of hundreds of square miles appears in the bay every summer, spurred by a rush of spring rains that washes nutrients into waterways....

Phosphorus is one of the three main pollutants in the bay, the others being nitrogen and sediment. A nationwide ban on phosphates in laundry detergent went into effect in the late 1980s.