Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment



Thomas Ternes of the-Institut fr Wasserforschung und Wassertechnologie (Institute for Water Research and Water Technology) in Wiesbaden, Germany co-authored a report titled "Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: Agents of Subtle Change" The report appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives.

When Ternes discovered endocrine disrupting pharmaceuticals in the ground water around the Berlin wastewater-treatment plant, scientists around the world began their search for similar drugs in their surface and ground water. The presence of these chemicals is almost universal.

Recent media reports have disclosed antibiotics in drinking water, drug-resistant bacteria in some of the nation's biggest rivers, and evidence of gender-reversal in fish that may be tied to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). In the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey has a network of 28 monitoring stations. In the State of New Mexico, common drugs such as estrogen, darvon, and dilantin have been found. The estrogen levels are high enough in the San Juan River to affect the reproductive organs of fish. These chemicals are refractory. They cannot be removed by normal water treatment processes.

Wherever surface water in particular is used for municipal water supply, municipalities should consider alternative drinking water and in particular bottled water. Some communities already have switched to bottled water for drinking because of high arsenic levels. In communities where levels of EDC's exist citizen's groups should question the wisdom of treating every drop of water for human consumption when these EDCs and other refractory compounds and their metabolic products cannot be removed at a reasonable price. In New Orleans, it is commonly said that every drop of water consumed has been through eight sets of kidneys. And, it was the Mississippi River in which trihalomethanes (THMs) were first found.. THMs are carcinogens that are formed from the reaction between residual chlorine added to water by municipalities and organic compounds dissolved normally in water. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the city is planning to divert its San Juan Chama water from the Rio Grande, treat it traditionally, and distribute it for drinking water. The diversion point is downstream from the sewage treatment plant outfalls for upstream Santa Fe, Espanola, and Taos.

In addition to the possible contamination of surface water with EDCs what about shallow groundwater that is receiving septage from septic tanks?

Ternes was the keynote speaker at the 2nd International Conference on Pharmaceuticals and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in Water organized by the National Ground Water Association. The meeting was held 9-11 October in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The event was co-sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health, the Pan American Health Organization, the Technical University of Berlin, the US EPA National Risk Management Research Lab and the US Geological Survey. Scientists from Australia, Denmark, Germany, India and the United States addressed the emergence of pharmaceuticals and EDCs as new environmental contaminants in rivers and municipal water systems.

Other presenters in the pharmaceuticals session included Thomas Heberer of the K. Reddersen Institute of Food Chemistry in Berlin, Germany, who discussed the water system of Berlin as an example of urban ecosystems; James P. Hagen of GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, who provided an industry perspective; and scientists from the US Geological Survey.

Presenters on issues related to endocrine disrupting chemicals included Pamela Wild and Monika Moeder of the Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and representatives of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The extent of the contamination and its impact on animals, and new ways to test for and successfully treat these compounds in water was the key issue of the conference, with sessions on:

     Occurrence of pharmaceutical compounds in ground and surface waters

     Occurrence and fate of EDCs in water

     Analysis of pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting chemicals

     Distribution and effects on wildlife

     Treatment technologies for pharmaceuticals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals

Since this Newsletter was published in 2001 and Ternes' clarion call seven years have passed and investigations in most if not all industrialized countries are becoming more numerous and have shown the widespread occurrence of pharmaceuticals in natural waters and drinking water supplies.  In 2008 the news media in the United States was filled with articles on this subject.  In New Mexico, citizens are concerned that an aquifer storage and recharge project known as the Bear Canyon Project will recharge Rio Grande water that contains these pharmaceuticals.  Because they are unregulated, they are not routinely tested and citizens are concerned that our pristine ground water will become contaminated by these compounds.

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