As if state and federal environmental officials don’t have enough to deal with — PFOA contamination, PCBs in the Hudson River, and sewage overflows from overwhelmed municipal systems — now they’re going to have to get out in front of a relatively new threat to the public and wildlife: drugs in the water supply.
A new study released this week by researchers at Columbia University of a 155-mile stretch of the Hudson River from the Albany south to New York Harbor discovered 16 pharmaceutical compounds in the water, largely near the discharge pipes for municipal water treatment systems.
These drugs included antibiotics, acetaminophen, caffeine, the artificial sweetener sucralose, and drugs used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, epilepsy, high cholesterol and ulcers.
While officials didn’t raise alarms over the levels of the chemicals found in the water, the prevalence of so many highly prescribed items and their potential to harm fish, aquatic organisms and other wildlife should the chemicals accumulate over time should be a red flag that officials need to start finding ways to keep these materials out of the water supply.
While municipal water is treated, common methods for treating water aren’t necessarily designed to remove small amounts of prescription drugs, and many of those compounds are difficult to remove. Chlorine, which is often added to water to treat it, can even make some chemicals more toxic.
An Associated Press investigation conducted in 2008 found that at least 41 million Americans were drinking water containing a vast amount of drugs, including those found in the Columbia study, as well as anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones.
While the levels of chemicals the AP study found didn’t rise to the levels of a medical dose, the study did raise concerns about the long-term effects of these drugs steadily getting into the water supply and affecting vulnerable people over a long period of time.
Researchers haven’t pinpointed exactly how the chemicals get into the water supply. Some of the drugs no doubt survive human digestion and get into the water supply through sewer treatment facilities. Others get into the supply by people flushing unused pills down the toilet. Some communities have recently attempted to discourage this by hosting drug-takeback days.
This study and others like it provide an opportunity for officials get out ahead of a potentially significant long-term health problem by adopting policies, regulations and standards for wastewater treatment and disposal of drugs now.
Environmental problems never get better. The longer they’re allowed to go on, the worse they get -- for plants, animals and people.