[Pharmwaste] Pharms found in Montana wells
Laurie.Tenace at dep.state.fl.us
Fri Jun 29 09:57:07 EDT 2007
Testing reveals drugs' residue
By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian
WEST GLACIER - For five miles downstream of the Boulder, Colo., sewage
treatment plant there are no male fish.
In Pacific currents off the Los Angeles coastline, fish are too lazy to hunt,
too laid back to bother with breeding.
In south-central Asia, vultures are dying of drug overdoses.
All because what goes in must come out.
"All domestic sewage, regardless of your location on the globe, will contain
pharmaceuticals," said Kate Miller. "If you can find a human being, you'll
probably find pharmaceuticals in the environment."
Miller works for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality as an
engineer and a hydrologist, but she sounds more like a chemist - what with
all those crazy long compound names in the parts per billion.
Recently, Miller was asked to go on a hunt for fecal contamination - sewage,
basically - in Helena Valley groundwater. She was to use certain microbial
markers, such as E. coli and coliphage, to sniff out the presence or absence
of fecal taint.
But the more she read about sewage-borne contaminants, the more she became
convinced that more modern markers would make for a more interesting study.
And so Miller added 28 man-made chemicals to her search target, including
pharmaceuticals, endocrine disrupters and personal care products.
On Wednesday, she presented her findings to the Flathead Basin Commission, a
multi-agency commission charged with protecting water quality in the Flathead
River drainage and Flathead Lake.
Miller's is a compelling story - 32 of 35 drinking water wells tested
positive for the chemicals, and of the 28 compounds she chose to look for a
whopping 22 were found.
Some were 425 feet down, in rock from the Paleozoic Era, a time when Miller
is fairly certain there were no pharmaceuticals. Conclusion: It must be
long-term contamination from the surface.
"They act like pesticides," Miller said of the contaminants. "They're big,
Which means they're persistent and tend to stick around for a while.
"If a cancer patient lives above you and is on chemotherapy drugs, and your
neighborhood is on septic, then there's a good chance you're on chemo drugs,
too," she said.
Albeit at very, very low doses.
Doses, in fact, that probably don't pose much of a health risk. Probably.
"The fact is," Miller said, "no one knows."
Neither does anyone know how low-dose drugs might affect fish and wildlife,
or how a cocktail of drugs, even at low doses, might combine to cause some
surprising cumulative effects.
The pharmaceuticals - both over-the-counter and prescription drugs - make
their way into water systems because they are flushed (think leftover or
out-of-date prescriptions) or because they pass through us and then are
The endocrine disrupters - mostly hormones and birth-control drugs - pass the
same way, and are known to disrupt endocrine systems in fish and birds, just
as they do in humans.
(That's why there are no male fish in the waters below Boulder's sewage
treatment plant. They've all been feminized by estrogen, Miller said. The
laid-back Pacific fish are happy on Prozac, and the Asian vultures are
overdosed on anti-inflammatory drugs, pumped by local farmers into their
water buffalo herds before those animals die and become vulture food.)
The personal care products - musks and perfumes and sunblock - enter the
system through shower drains, then continue on through septic systems or
municipal treatment plants.
"None of these systems have been designed to remove these things," Miller
said. "The possible impacts are very poorly understood."
What will a trace of steroid do to an insect, or to a fish? What will traces
of many drugs combined do to those same animals?
"We don't have a lot of answers yet," Miller said.
What she does know is that the combined action of several compounds can
exceed the sum of the individual parts. And the longer an organism is
exposed, the more sensitive it can become to the contaminant. And some
compounds - think antibiotics - definitely overlap between species. And most
drugs have multiple side effects, both known and unknown.
Fish, Miller said, are especially vulnerable because they swim steeped in the
stew 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"That's key, because they can't get up out of the river and walk to a new
spot," Miller said. "They're captive."
There's no escape. Even if the compound has a short half-life, it's
constantly being replenished into the system, offering no relief.
The questions are so far beyond the answers, Miller said, that science often
doesn't even know what to ask. She tested just 28 of the 800,000 or so known
chemicals that could pass through our systems into ground - and later surface
Antidepressants are affecting shellfish reproduction, she said.
Blood-pressure drugs are reducing sperm counts in aquatic organisms.
Anti-seizure drugs cause neurodegeneration in fish. Arthritis medicines
affect fin growth.
"This is something that's only been recently uncovered in the United States,"
Miller said, "and as a body of scientists we're still trying to get our arms
around it. We may have to start regulating the way our wastewater is
And not just in the Helena Valley, where her study was centered. According to
Miller, Missoula-based researcher Bill Woessner found acetaminophen,
caffeine, nicotine, codeine and antibiotics in his backyard groundwater.
Others have repeated the results around the globe.
Miller stresses that the amounts found are astoundingly small - measured in
half-parts per billion - and that the effects to human health, if any, are by
no means clear.
But she also notes that antibiotics were found in 80 percent of her test
sites, "and I do worry about antibiotic resistance when I see something like
She also worries that breast cancer and prostate cancer could be on the rise
in part due to hormones leaching into drinking water. It's just a hunch, but
she's not alone.
Her immediate prescription is to stop flushing unused drugs, and to stop
overusing drugs in general. Miller recommends taking those unused medicines -
be careful, though, with narcotics - and zipping them in a plastic baggie
with a handful of kitty litter. Then drop it in the local landfill, which is
lined to contain contaminants.
Canada has an even better solution, requiring drug distributors to collect
any unused pharmaceuticals and dispose of them properly, at a facility
designed to filter out the contaminants.
Another answer might simply be better sewage treatment plants, "but we're
still trying to figure out how to do that," Miller said. That would, she
admits, be expensive.
"We're very early in the research here," Miller said, "and there are so many
things we still don't know. But we've begun looking, and that's an important
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at
mjamison at missoulian.com.
Laurie J. Tenace
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
2600 Blair Stone Road, MS 4555
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-2400
PH: (850) 245-8759
FAX: (850) 245-8811
Laurie.Tenace at dep.state.fl.us
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