Can We Still Call it Water? Wastewater Full of Prescription Drugs and Chemicals

wastewater treatment

Sewage treatment plants are only removing about fifty percent of prescription drugs and other contamination risks from water entering into the Great Lakes, finds a new report.

According to the report, compiled by the International Joint Commission, a consortium of officials from the United States and Canada who study the Great Lakes, there are more than 1,400 wastewater treatment plants throughout the U.S. and Canada releasing nearly 5 billion gallons of treated wastewater into the Great Lakes every day. And they’re loaded with “chemicals of emerging concern,” notes the study authors.

To determine how specific chemicals and compounds were removed from water, the research team reviewed ten years worth of data from wastewater treatment plants around the world. According to Environmental Health News (EHN), “six chemicals were detected frequently and had a low rate of removal in treated effluent: an herbicide, an anti-seizure drug, two antibiotic drugs, an antibacterial drug and an anti-inflammatory drug.” Acetaminophen and a natural estrogen were also frequently detected in sewage “but had high removal rates.”

According to Antonette Arvai, physical scientist at the International Joint Commission and the lead author of the study “The compounds show up in low levels – parts per billion or parts per trillion – but aquatic life and humans aren’t exposed to just one at a time, but a whole mix,” she said. “We need to find which of these chemicals might hurt us.”

Damaging algae and disrupting hormones in fish, triclosan—the antibacterial agent in soaps, toothpastes and hand sanitizers—was found “frequently” according to the report and was labeled as having “medium removal efficiency.” (The FDA has just announced plans to enforce stricter regulations on the use of triclosan.)

According to EHN, “Chemicals’ showing up in wastewater effluent doesn’t necessarily mean they will be found in drinking water. But some studies have found prescription drugs in drinking water at parts-per-trillion levels.” And the site notes that a federal study of 74 waterways used for drinking water in 25 states “found 53 had traces of one or more pharmaceuticals.”

No federal regulations currently exist on pharmaceutical levels in waste or drinking water, reports EHN, but there are 12 pharmaceuticals on the EPA’s “list of chemicals under consideration for drinking water standards.”

The high levels of chemicals in the water aren’t the fault of treatment plants though. According to EHN, Michael Murray, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center who is on the IJC’s board notes that treatment plants simply weren’t designed to process the chemicals now abundant in diets and personal care products. And for the Great Lakes region specifically, many of the treatment plants “are under tight budgets,” says Murray. [T]hey’re just doing what they can to meet requirements.”

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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