Delaware Drinking Water at Risk: Prescription drugs on tap from major suppliers

Posted in: antibiotics, Drinking Water News, Health effects, Water Contamination
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Article courtesy of Jeff Montgomery | August 4, 2010 | The News Journal | Taylor Made Water | Shared as educational material

Newly released details from a state drinking water study show that prescription drugs and personal care chemicals have crept into water supplies used by every major water utility tested.

The results, provided in response to a request from The News Journal, show smatterings of medicines ranging from analgesics and antibiotics to anti-convulsives and hormones in water used both by public and private companies, including all three of New Castle County’s largest public utilities and major suppliers in Kent and Sussex counties.

None of the medications detected at water intakes and treatment plants is regulated, and none is targeted or routinely removed by current treatment methods. Detection ranged from caffeine and analgesics in United Water Delaware’s big freshwater intake near Stanton to micro-bits of synthetic estrogen in a Seaford well.

The Division of Public Health released specific findings for each utility checked in response to a request by The News Journal, after issuing a summary earlier this year without naming individual suppliers. Agency officials conducted the scan of drinking water and farm supplies in late 2008 and early 2009.

The details included a finding that Brandywine Creek in Wilmington delivers traces of a common antibiotic cleanser to city drinking water, while a well serving a mobile home community near Lewes supplies tiny dregs of a common anticholesterol drug.

Among the other detection: a farm water source near Laurel yields up small amounts of anti-seizure medication, among other compounds; Georgetown’s treatment plant released tiny amounts of the analgesic ibuprofen; minuscule amounts of the hormones testosterone and progesterone can be found in Newark water.

Results were measured in parts-per-trillion — far below concentrations that could cause immediate problems. But concern about unexamined risks and cumulative effects from such pollutants is growing around the nation, and last month led to a formal petition by two environmental groups seeking greater federal and industry study and control.

“I would consider it to be very significant potential impact,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist in the Washington, D.C., office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group. “Especially for things like endocrine disruptors, mood stabilizers, hormones. These drugs work naturally in the body at very low levels.”

Researchers and state officials say most of the contaminants likely come from treatment plants, septic systems and sewage sludge used as fertilizers. Some enter the environment when people flush outdated or unused medicines down toilets. Other chemicals escape from human waste and washwater, passing untouched through treatment plants.

Geraldine DeMoss, a former New Castle resident, said she was not surprised at the state’s results. Moss has lived for 15 years in the Donovan/Smith community near Lewes, where tests found up to 460 parts per trillion of the anti-cholesterol drug called gemfibrozil, sold under the name Lopid, in water from wells 50 to 160 feet deep.

“All I can say is, there’s a lot of chemicals out there. They’re being flushed; they’re going through the systems and eventually going out into the ground,” DeMoss said. “Personally, I don’t drink this water. I drink distilled water and I have for years.”

More than 56 percent of state agricultural monitoring wells also contained one or more compounds.

DPH spokeswoman Heidi Trueschel-Light said the Environment committee of the Delaware Cancer Consortium requested the survey, which found at least one contaminant examined in nearly 55 percent of public water system samples. Nineteen out of 20 public utilities, including all large suppliers checked, had at least one detection.

Trueschel-Light said in a written statement that no local follow-ups are planned.

“The results are consistent with what has been found in other studies of this type,” Trueschel-Light said. “DPH is aware that EPA is conducting studies to determine the significance and potential health effects of these low levels of contaminants.”

The NRDC and Great Lakes Environmental Law Clinic last month asked the Food and Drug Administration to look closer, too. Those groups recommended changes to rules that now exempt pharmaceutical companies from environmental impact studies if expected contamination levels fall below 1 part per billion.

One shallow farm irrigation well between Laurel and Dagsboro contained 1.1 parts per billion of sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic that can interact dangerously with the anti-clotting drug wafarin. The same well also produced water with 41 parts per trillion of the anti-seizure drug carbamazepine, also known as Carbatrol, among other names, and about half a part per billion of ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

Contamination of farm wells has created its own set of concerns.

The American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology published a study last month showing that those same pharmaceuticals and personal care products can accumulate in soybeans irrigated with contaminated water. Soybeans are a bedrock crop in Delaware.

“We need more research at this moment,” Chenxi Wu, a University of Toledo research scientist and lead author of the federally backed study, said Tuesday. “We need more experiments to see if livestock that eat those soybeans accumulate those compounds in the meat.”

The state’s summary of findings noted 17 different drugs were found in 101 samples of treated and untreated water from public systems. Tests of 95 shallow farm irrigation wells detected 14 compounds. Some samples had as many as nine different substances.

Sass said her group believes that pharmaceutical companies should be required to take back unused or outdated medicines, and said those same companies should be required to report amounts produced and sold.

She also said that better dispensing practices are needed to limit waste and oversupply that leads to unsafe disposal practices.

The NRDC and Great Lakes Environmental Law Clinic last month asked the Food and Drug Administration to look closer, too. Those groups recommended changes to rules that now exempt pharmaceutical companies from environmental impact studies if expected contamination levels fall below 1 part per billion.

One shallow farm irrigation well between Laurel and Dagsboro contained 1.1 parts per billion of sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic that can interact dangerously with the anti-clotting drug wafarin. The same well also produced water with 41 parts per trillion of the anti-seizure drug carbamazepine, also known as Carbatrol, among other names, and about half a part per billion of ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

Contamination of farm wells has created its own set of concerns.

The American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology published a study last month showing that those same pharmaceuticals and personal care products can accumulate in soybeans irrigated with contaminated water. Soybeans are a bedrock crop in Delaware.

“We need more research at this moment,” Chenxi Wu, a University of Toledo research scientist and lead author of the federally backed study, said Tuesday. “We need more experiments to see if livestock that eat those soybeans accumulate those compounds in the meat.”

The state’s summary of findings noted 17 different drugs were found in 101 samples of treated and untreated water from public systems. Tests of 95 shallow farm irrigation wells detected 14 compounds. Some samples had as many as nine different substances.

Sass said her group believes that pharmaceutical companies should be required to take back unused or outdated medicines, and said those same companies should be required to report amounts produced and sold.

She also said that better dispensing practices are needed to limit waste and oversupply that leads to unsafe disposal practices.

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