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What’s In Your Water? Report Points To Pharmaceuticals

Patti Daniels
Vermont Public Radio
The 90-mile Winooski River is home to several waste water treatment plants. The river feeds into Lake Champlain.

More than 70 percent of the U.S. population takes at least one prescription drug, and scientists say some of those drugs are making it into our waterways.

That’s raising concerns about the environmental impact of those chemicals, even if the overall risk to human health from these drugs isn’t too serious.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently published a report on the presence of drugs in wastewater effluent. It looked for 56 drugs in some of the country’s largest wastewater facilities and found 25 of them.

“Most of the ones that they found were high blood pressure medications, but there were some others as well. They said that there’s not a concern for human health here, but the environmental impact that may be caused by these pharmaceuticals making it through the waste water stream is still unknown,” said Mike Winslow, staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committee.

Waste water treatment facilities were designed to remove pathogens. Everything else, like nutrient removal, is an add-on process. “But pharmaceuticals and the possibility of pharmaceuticals making it through waste water treatment facilities is something relatively new and unknown. The facilities aren’t designed to make the water pure. They’re just designed to keep us from getting sick from the water that comes out of them,” Winslow explained.

The EPA study did not look at Vermont, but other studies have been done. A U.S. Geological Survey study has looked at the presence or absence of drugs in waste water effluent in storm water overflows in Lake Champlain and waters around the region. Winslow said that study found that Lake Champlain was similar to the rest of the country.

“There are some drugs present and they’re at fairly low doses.”

A second study specifically compared the waste water coming out of treatment facilities to combined sewer overflows that don’t get treated.  “That study again was similar to results from around the country, they found that some products are removed at the waste water treatment facilities. Those are not likely to be found very much in the lake, but some things the waste water treatment facilities don’t remove at all. They also found for those things that the waste water facilities remove, it’s the combined sewer overflows that is the greatest source of those substances,” Winslow said.

Other studies have looked at the environmental impact of areas where wastewater discharges are a large part of the system. “They find frequently in fish that the actual sex of the fish will change. That male fish will become female, female fish will become male, or at least show evidence of having the other sexes within it. The reason is that a lot of the things that are passing through the facilities mimic hormones and so the hormones are what cause us to develop our sexual characteristics and when you start messing with those, you get real odd effects on the environment.”

Winslow cited a study in Ontario where scientists dosed a lake with those chemicals, which lead to a near extinction in the lake of fat head minnows. “What’s going on in the real world is still under investigation.”

The Lake Champlain Committee works to educate people about proper disposal of medications, by grinding them up with coffee grounds and putting them in the garbage, taking them to the pharmacies for drug take-back days, avoiding over prescription of drugs, and never flushing drugs down the toilet.

“There is no 'away'. Whatever goes down the toilet is going to end up back in the lake,” Winslow said.