Test it, study it, figure out how to clean it — but still drink it. That’s the range of reactions raining down from community leaders, utilities, environmental groups and policy makers in reaction to an Associated Press investigation that documented the presence of pharmaceuticals in major portions of the nation’s drinking water supplies.
“There is no wisdom in avoidance. There is wisdom in addressing this problem. I’m not suggesting that people be hysterical and overreact. There’s a responsible way to deal with this — and collectively we can do it,” said Washington-based environmental lawyer George Mannina.
A five-month-long inquiry by the AP National Investigative Team found that many communities do not test for the presence of drugs in drinking water, and those that do often fail to tell customers that they have found trace amounts of medications, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones. The stories also detailed the growing concerns among scientists that such pollution is adversely affecting wildlife and may be threatening human health.
As a result, Senate hearings have been scheduled, and there have been calls for federal solutions. But officials in many cities say they aren’t going to wait for guidance from Washington to begin testing.
Pharmaceutical industry officials said they would launch a new initiative Monday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focused on telling Americans how to safely dispose of unused medicines.
Pharmaceuticals not included in testingThe subject of pharmaceuticals in drinking water also will be discussed this week when 7,000 scientists and regulators from 45 countries gather in Seattle for the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology. “The public has a right to know the answers to these questions,” said Dr. George Corcoran, the organization’s president.
“The AP story has really put the spotlight on it, and it is going to lead to a pickup in the pace,” he said. “People are going to start putting money into studying this now, instead of a few years from now, and we’ll get the answers sooner than we would have otherwise.”
Environmental leaders said some answers are easy.
“It’s basic. We need to test, tell and protect health,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group.
Wiles said the Environmental Protection Agency needs to widely expand the list of contaminants that utilities are required to test for. That list currently contains no pharmaceuticals. He also said government agencies and water providers that don’t disclose test results “are taking away people’s right to know, hiding the fact that there are contaminants in the water. We don’t think they have that right. It’s hubris, it’s arrogance and it’s self-serving,” said Wiles.
As part of its effort, the AP surveyed 62 metropolitan areas and 52 smaller cities, reporting on positive test results in 24 major cities, serving 41 million Americans. Since release of the AP investigation, other communities and researchers have been disclosing previously unreleased local results, positive or negative.
In Yuma, Ariz., for example, city spokesman Dave Nash said four pharmaceuticals — an antibiotic, an anti-convulsant, an anti-bacterial and caffeine — have been detected in that city’s drinking water. In Denver, where the AP had reported undisclosed antibiotics had been detected, a Colorado State University professor involved in water screening there e-mailed the names of 12 specific drugs that had been detected.
Officials at many utilities said that without federal regulations, they didn’t see a need to screen their water for trace amounts of pharmaceuticals. But others have now decided to test, including Scottsdale and Phoenix in Arizona, Palm Beach County in Florida, Chicago and Springfield, Ill., Bozeman, Mont., Fargo, N.D.; Danville, Va.; and a group of four sewer partners in the Olympia, Wash., region.
“We read the AP story and made a determination that we should test our water and be transparent, just let the people know what we find. I’m confident we have safe and clean drinking water,” said Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
Officials in Freeport, Ill., one of the smaller cities surveyed, said they plan to work with the state EPA to test the area’s drinking water for pharmaceuticals. Mayor George Gaulrapp said he is looking to the state agency for standards, regulations and testing procedures for that city’s water, which comes from a deep well.
In Marin County, California, officials said repeated tests in their watershed for pharmaceuticals have come back clean. In Massachusetts, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced a program to screen rivers, streams and reservoirs for pharmaceuticals.
Dozens of newspaper editorials called for testing in communities where water is not being screened and the release of any test results.
“The first, and least expensive, step is to let the sunshine in: Water utilities that currently test for pharmaceuticals should make that information freely available to their customers, along with more information on the potential impacts of drugs in the water supply,” read an editorial in the Daytona Beach News-Journal.