Pharmaceuticals and Anti-Bacterials in Your Drinking Water

(Beyond Pesticides, March 17, 2008)

Not everything that goes down the drain can be removed by water treatment plants, which leaves some alarming contaminants in America’s drinking water. A five-month investigation by the Associated Press (AP) finds trace quantities of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water of 41 million Americans. Scientists fear that ingestion of these tiny amounts of drugs may pose health risks to the public, wildlife and aquatic organisms.

The AP investigation surveyed the 50 largest cities in the country and a dozen other major water providers, as well as other small providers in each of the 50 states. A wide range of pharmaceuticals, whether administered to humans or to farm animals, are found in the water of 24 major metropolitan areas, and tests done in the watersheds of 35 major water providers shows 28 testing positive for pharmaceuticals. The levels of pharmaceuticals found in the water are at levels measured in the parts per billion or trillion, far below levels of medical use. The federal government has not set safety limits for drugs in drinking water. In fact, fewer than half of the 62 major water providers could say their water was tested.

Water treatment plants are not designed to remove these types of contaminants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not require utilities to test for these chemicals. The drug residues in tap water join hundreds of other synthetic chemicals Americans are exposed to daily, as contaminants in food, water, air and in common consumer products.

EPA’s assistant administrator for water, Benjamin Grumbles, told the AP in a related story, “N0 Standards to Test for Drugs in Water,” that “the EPA has launched a four-pronged approach: to identify the extent of the problem, to identify’ what we don’t know and close the gap,’ to take steps using existing science and regulatory tools, and finally, to increase dialogue and awareness with water providers and state and local agencies.” This sounds like business as usual at EPA, a lot of talk and little action, according to advocates.

Sudeep Chandra, an assistant professor at University of Nevada, Reno told the AP, “There’s enough global information now to confirm these contaminants are affecting organisms and wildlife.” According to the AP article, Drugs in Water Hurt Fish and Wildlife, “More than 100 different pharmaceuticals have been detected in surface waters throughout the world.” Several species from algae to fish to vultures have serious reproductive problems as a result from these contaminants. Problems like lower sperm counts, damaged sperm, feminization of males, create androgynous characteristics, increased hormone levels, kidney failure, and inhibited growth.

Philadelphia has the highest number of pharmaceuticals, 56, found in its drinking water. Washington, DC has six different drugs in its drinking water, one of which is triclocarban, an antibacterial compound widely used as an additive to a range of household and personal care products including bar soaps, detergents, body washes, cleansing lotions, and wipes. Triclocarban, like its cousin triclosan, has been linked to numerous health and environmental effects. Researchers from the University of California- Davis and Yale University found triclocarban to have an amplification effect on the activity of natural hormones, which in turn can lead to adverse reproductive and developmental effects. Triclocarban has a synergistic interaction with the sex hormone, testosterone, present in both males and females. Researchers further explained that ovulation and ovarian function in females can be disrupted, while sperm quality can be decreased in males. They also note that since triclocarban has the potential to amplify synthetic compounds, further investigation into its interaction with oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy is needed. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that triclocarban is the fifth most frequent contaminant among 96 pharmaceuticals, personal care products and organic wastewater contaminants evaluated and the levels of triclocarban in water resources nationwide are much higher than previously thought. A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study finds earthworms in agricultural fields contain chemicals from household products, indicating that such substances are entering the food chain. Chemicals introduced to the environment via land application of biosolids, the solid byproduct of wastewater treatment, and manure as fertilizers are transferred to earthworms. Earthworms continuously ingest soils for nourishment and can accumulate the chemicals present in the soil. Several compounds were detected in earthworms including triclosan and phenol (disinfectants), tributylphosphate (antifoaming agent and flame retardant), benzophenone (fixative), trimethoprim (antibiotic), and galaxolide and tonalide (synthetic fragrances). In previous research, the USGS found several drugs, including triclosan, in Shoal Creek in Missouri back in 1999 and 2002, according to The Joplin Globe.

Additionally, researchers at Virginia Tech have found that triclosan reacts with chlorine in tap water to form significant quantities of chloroform. Chloroform is classified by EPA as a probable human carcinogen. The research also suggests that the reaction of triclosan with chlorine could produce highly chlorinated, and thus dangerous, dioxins in the presence of sunlight.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) of Oakland, California, among others, has already begun doing something about pharmaceuticals in waste water. One EBMUD flyer distributed during the summer of 2007, states, “The [EBMUD] plant, like others around the Bay, cannot remove 100 percent of these chemicals, which then ultimately end up in San Francisco Bay. You can help protect the Bay by reducing the use of antibacterial soap (containing triclosan), finding less-toxic pesticide alternatives and properly disposing of hazardous wastes such as pharmaceuticals and mercury-containing products.” EBMUD has also phased-out its own purchases of products containing triclosan and triclocarban.

In 2006, the Santa Clara Basin Watershed Management Initiative – Emerging Contaminants Workgroup, which was created to provide a forum to discuss issues related to endocrine disrupting compounds and recycled water, wrote a white paper on the hazards of triclosan. Among other solutions discussed, the heavily cited paper suggests looking into drafting legislation to limit antibacterial products and other emerging watershed contaminants in consumer products.

In response to the AP investigation, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz (PA-13) called on EPA to establish a national taskforce to investigate and make recommendations to Congress on any legislative actions needed. “The Associated Press report raises serious questions about the safety and security of America’s water system. I am especially concerned about the lack of information known on the potential for pharmaceuticals in the water to bio-accumulate in humans or potentially decrease the effectiveness of antibiotics or other life-saving medicines,” writes Congresswoman Schwartz in a letter to EPA. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Chairman of the Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced that they plan to hold a hearing on the issue sometime in early April.

In the wake of the AP investigation, the Governor of Illinois has ordered its state’s waterways to be tested for pharmaceuticals and the New York City Council has scheduled an emergency public hearing for April 3rd.