Ottawa: new drug rules aimed at protecting water : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


OTTAWA - The presence of birth control hormones, anti-biotics and other pharmaceuticals in drinking water is leading to more rigorous rules for the approval of food and drugs in Canada.

INDEPTH: Drinking Water

Health Canada says in two years, new regulations will require the manufacturers of food, human and animal medication and cosmetics to show their products are safe for the environment.

Health Canada says it's looking at research from Europe, where densely populated cities use drinking water that's heavily recycled.

Elizabeth Nielsen is with Health Canada. She says 30 to 50 different medications are turning up in trace amounts. "For instance, birth control pills, and hormones. We're also finding aspirin ... anti-depressants, ... blood pressure medication, the sort of medication that's being used widely by the population," said Nielsen.

And although the data is only just now being collected, hormones and anti-biotics are already being found in Canadian water.

Nielsen says while part of the problem comes from people dumping medication into the garbage, it's known that 80 per cent of drugs that are ingested are actually excreted and end up in the environment.

That's why Health Canada says it's developing new regulations for drugs, foods and cosmetics that will require manufacturers to prove they won't cause a problem in the environment.

But the new rules won't apply to every drug already on the market.

Jacques LeFevre is with RX-ND, the Association of Canadian Drug Manufacturers that conduct research.

"Our understanding is the new products would come under the new rules for environmental risk assessment, which would come under development in the next two years," said LeFevre.

That means even with new rules, old drugs that are showing up in the water may stay on the market.

-- Rachel Gibson (, September 05, 2001


<< hormones and anti-biotics are already being found in Canadian water...part of the problem comes from people dumping medication into the garbage, it's known that 80 per cent of drugs that are ingested are actually excreted and end up in the environment... >>

The classic marker for human waste contamination is caffeine. In North America at least, only human activity -- almost entirely from sewage -- will spread caffeine into the environment; we drink the stuff and some of it comes back out. Hence the presence of caffeine is sometimes used as a "fast and dirty" (pun intended) surrogate marker for water purity.

-- Andre Weltman (, September 05, 2001.

[For what it's worth, here's an exchange sparked by my comment about caffeine in water.]


Hi Andre,

I saw your response to the Ottawa article and was intrigued about your statement of using caffeine as an indicator.

I have heard that same statement before but have never been able to track down any real study except Rouge River in Michigan where it was not a good indicator because in many cases it was undetectable.

If you have some references I would appreciate you sending them to me. I have always thought that caffeine should be a "quick and dirty" indicator but I have found little evidence to show that people are really using it, or if they are, there is not much published.

-- Barron (Barry) R. Benroth [at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; full sig stripped by Andre]


Hmmm. Am I repeating a sort of scientific Urban Legend? This isn't my direct field of expertise.

<< I have found little evidence to show that people are really using it >>

I readily cede to your expertise. I know I have heard this concept mentioned (more than once) informally over the years by people who I thought ought to know as they were in the line of work. Perhaps caffeine isn't actually used, merely discussed as a possibility?

Prompted by your query, for my own edification I just did a quick web Search and can find only passing mention of caffeine -- in truly tiny levels: for example refers to a USGS study that includes caffeine but doesn't mention that caffeine is being used in particular as a marker of contamination. And I found the interesting EPA webpages on this general topic (human or veterinary pharmaceuticals [or related compounds like caffeine], and their metabolites, in the water supply). The slideshow at is interesting and entertaining. Clearly this general issue is a lot hotter than I ever imagined.

I also very vaguely seem to recall skimming research papers from the American Public Health Association about using various common compounds as a pollution marker, I don't know how many years ago. But again it's not really my speciality and I don't recall details, certainly I don't recall if caffeine was mentioned as a "micropollutant."

Clearly, the quantities of caffeine or similar chemicals would be extremely small indeed (what, PPB? PPT?), even if human activity is the only likely source. Perhaps too low a level to be useful as a marker in practice??? And would levels of caffeine in wastestreams from Seattle be higher than those from Harrisburg PA (just joking... I think).

(As an aside: I remain politely skeptical as to the negative health implications of such very low levels of antibiotics or related pharmaceuticals in water -- but as I said, it's not my direct area of expertise... As regards creation of drug-resistant bacteria, the data on somewhat higher levels of, say, quinolone antibiotics in *food* animals causing drug-resistant Campylobacter and Salmonella have been debated in the medical journals in recent years...this seems more plausible to me than *water*.)

Do you mind if I post this exchange on GICC as a sort of retraction/expansion of my offhand comment?

Thanks. It's nice to know a wide range of people are lurking on GICC.

-- Andre

Andre Weltman, M.D., M.Sc., Public Health Physician, Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Pennsylvania Department of Health

[speaking for myself only; the above sig is for identification purposes, as always...]


Hi Andre,

This is not my area of expertise either. I work a lot with Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) and we are always looking for tools that my help us identify SSOs and other causes of water pollution. There is often a debate as to whether pollution is caused by humans or animals and caffeine presence would certainly be an indicator of human involvement since even Starbucks has not penetrated the deer and bear market, as far as I know.

Speaking of Starbucks, I guess you might expect a higher level of caffeine in Seattle!

I don't care if you post this on the GICC. It should be clear that I am not saying no one is using caffeine, I am just having a hard time finding evidence.

Thanks for the prompt response. If I run across something more on this issue, I will let you know. By the way, I did look at most of the slide show you referenced. Wish I had understood more than I did!

-- Barron (Barry) R. Benroth [US EPA]

-- Andre Weltman (, September 05, 2001.

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