The Environmental Protection Agency was lambasted during a Senate hearing Tuesday for allowing the American public to learn that traces of pharmaceuticals are in much of the nation's drinking water from an Associated Press investigative series, not the federal government.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, angrily chided Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water, for the agency's failure to require testing for drugs and for public disclosure of test results.
"When a story like this breaks, why is it necessary for Sen. (Frank) Lautenberg to call a hearing on this? Why aren't you working on this night and day?" Boxer asked. "The Associated Press did your work _ and they're telling us what's in the water."
Boxer set the critical tone in her opening remarks, when she praised the AP and the U.S. Geological Survey, which has conducted extensive testing, for informing the nation that "our water supplies can contain a mixture of pharmaceuticals. Notice I didn't thank the EPA."
Responding to the aggressive questioning in a packed hearing room, Grumbles insisted the agency is not downplaying the issue.
"We're very concerned. It does send a big red flag. We're taking this very seriously," Grumbles testified. He said the EPA was "drastically expanding the scope" of its monitoring of testing of drinking water across the nation.
"Your concern is not comforting. I can tell you that," said Lautenberg, D-N.J., who chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality. "Action is what we are trying to get."
The subcommittee convened the hearing in response to a series last month by the AP National Investigative Team that detailed test results showing the presence of minute concentrations of drugs in drinking water in 24 major metropolitan areas that serve 41 million Americans.
The AP's five-month inquiry found that while water is screened for drugs by some suppliers, they usually don't tell customers they have found medication in it, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones. The stories also detailed the growing concerns among scientists that this pollution is already adversely affecting wildlife, and may threaten human health.
Some of the witnesses cautioned against sinking a lot of money and resources into regulating pharmaceuticals in drinking water before the health risks are better understood. In addition, they pointed out there may be more pressing concerns about other contaminants.
After Grumbles maintained that federal scientists were studying the issue of drugs in water long before the AP series, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked him why most people hadn't heard about the contamination.
"You've been doing all of this, but it really surprised a lot of us. It really shouldn't take a newspaper article to get the story out," she said. "My concern here is you talk a lot about potential (inclusion of drugs on regulated contaminant lists) and things we can do. I'm concerned there hasn't been enough action."
Grumbles was grilled on why water providers are not required to test for pharmaceuticals, on why the EPA's budget for testing of endocrine disruptors in waterways has been slashed 35 percent and why the agency has not disclosed all of its test results. Repeatedly, senators said they were not satisfied with his responses.
In a letter to the subcommittee earlier this month, Grumbles said it would be unreasonable and expensive to require such testing, given the uncertain risk to humans.
In remarks prepared for his testimony, he seemed somewhat less reluctant.
"Some have argued that it does not make sense to monitor for pharmaceuticals in water if there is limited information about the health effects at the concentrations that could be detected," his prepared remarks read. "We disagree. Information about occurrence and health effects is complementary and should be developed in tandem."
However, in his actual testimony, Grumbles declined to commit to such testing by water providers. "I think that they should disclose information that is useful to the public." Wondering if that meant raw data, he said, "I don't know."
Boxer answered back, "I'm talking about test results."
Outside the hearing room, Grumbles said utilities should test their waters for pharmaceuticals if they have the financial and technical resources.
Boxer also called on Grumbles to immediately release records sought this year by the AP in a Freedom of Information Act request from a White House task force that is supposed to be devising a federal plan to research pharmaceuticals in the environment.
Earlier this week, the AP reported that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy group has missed its December deadline to produce a national research strategy. In releasing about 70 pages of documents, a White House lawyer told the AP another "10 inches worth" were being withheld.
"The White House is keeping its task force secret," said Boxer, who urged the Bush administration to "immediately release all of the records."
She pressed Grumbles to produce the material within 10 days. He made no such commitment.
After the hearing, Lautenberg said the EPA response was inadequate. "To me, it represents a sleight of hand that we are familiar with here."
In other testimony, the senators were joined in their call for more research by Robert M. Hirsch, the USGS's associate director for water.
"Whether or not there are adverse human health effects from cumulative lifetime exposures to the low concentrations of complex mixtures of pharmaceuticals found in the environment remains a research priority, particularly the effects on sensitive subpopulations such as children, women of child-bearing years, the elderly and people with suppressed immune systems," Hirsch said.
In statements prepared for the hearing, drug industry representatives and environmentalists disagreed on whether enough is known to assure the public that water contaminated with minute concentrations of pharmaceuticals is safe to drink.
Alan Goldhammer, a deputy vice president for regulatory affairs at Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said his organization has researched the issue for years and found no problems. "In summary, there appears to be no demonstrable risk to human health from detected concentrations of pharmaceuticals in surface waters," he said.
But Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, disagreed.
"Although the human health impacts of these exposures to pharmaceuticals and personal care products are poorly understood, what we do know is troubling. For example, we know that widespread exposure to antibiotics is contributing to the growth of bacterial resistance, and this problem is of grave concern," she said.
Shane Snyder, research and development project manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas, suggested the focus of research needs to shift from the known to the unknown.
"The critical question we must address is not 'Do they exist?' but rather, 'At what concentration are these compounds harmful to human health?' Only then can we make intelligent, rational decisions that protect the health of this country's municipal water customers," Snyder said in his remarks.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate (at) ap.org
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