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Michigan part of study on impact to waterways
February 28, 2002
BY HUGH MCDIARMID JR., FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Chemicals from caffeine to powerful cancer-fighting drugs are flowing from Americans' bladders almost directly into waterways, where they have become the target of a groundbreaking federal study.
Drug disposal can be tricky Unused or expired drugs often are poured into sinks and toilets, joining the stream of chemicals flowing from human bodies into sewers and, eventually, streams. "Pouring them down the drain is probably the worst thing you can do," said Dr. Christian Daughton of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Daughton suggests contacting your pharmacist. Some will take the medicines back and pass them along to manufacturers or reverse distributors for proper disposal -- often incineration.
If the pharmacy won't take them, it's probably better to put them in the garbage -- crushing the medicines or mixing them with water first to make them unusable.
"Still," Daughton said, "that's not a great solution. That's why this is an issue that needs to be addressed."
IN THE WATERWAYS
Some common chemicals a U.S. study found in the nations water systems:
Caffeine, commonly found in coffee and tea.
Codeine, an analgesic.
Ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory found in products like Advil.
Tetracycline, an antibiotic.
Triclosan, a disinfectant found in antibacterial soaps.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
Michigan's Grand Traverse watershed is part of the study, which will survey 94 drugs and household chemicals at 200 sites nationwide. It is scheduled to be released in two weeks.
The study is a starting point to determine whether infinitesimal amounts of substances as common as Advil and antibacterial soap affect ecosystems or human health, researchers say.
"For 40 or 50 years, scientists have focused on a small group of pollutants, ignoring the vast majority of pollutants that do exist," said Dr. Christian Daughton, chief of environmental chemistry in the Environmental Protection Agency's National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas.
Daughton is at the forefront of an emerging field of study about how tiny amounts of everyday products affect aquatic organisms.
The U.S. Geological Survey study is the most comprehensive one of such contaminants ever done in North America.
Scientists say they hope the results will kick-start fledgling efforts to get a handle on what's in the water and what it means.
Up to 90 percent of ingested drugs are excreted from the body in a still-potent form. Others, like stale coffee or unused prescriptions, are flushed directly down toilets or poured down drains.
Wastewater treatment plants don't screen for them, state and federal regulations generally don't address their disposal, and no significant studies have documented their effect on aquatic organisms, researchers say.
"We're seeing a whole lot more, and more powerful, medicines than we used to. If we keep on dumping stuff, somewhere there's going to be a critical juncture," said Dr. Michael Harbut, an environmental medicine physician based in Royal Oak.
"There are a whole lot of health effects that these drugs have. The question is: at what concentrations?"
When Erin Lee Martin's stepmother died from cancer in late 2000, she was appalled at what happened to the leftover chemotherapy drugs.
A hospice worker inventoried about a dozen bottles of drugs, then poured them down the drain.
"I was flabbergasted," said Martin, 31, of Ann Arbor. "She said, 'They just go right into the sewers,' and I said, 'But the sewers go into the river and the river is our drinking water,' and she told me that's what they tell her to do. I mean, these were powerful medicines."
Inevitably, Harbut said, minute amounts of such substances end up in tap water drawn from the watersheds where treatment plants discharge wastewater.
Additionally, significant amounts of antibiotics and hormones fed to livestock leach into the environment from farms -- especially concentrated factory farms with dense populations of cows or chickens.
Water suppliers are not required to test or screen for any of the drugs or household chemicals, focusing instead on traditional pollutants like heavy metals and indicators of sewage, Daughton said.
At the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, officials say they are looking forward to the study.
They assume that many chemicals found in other urban areas also exist in the Detroit River -- the source of drinking water for most metro Detroiters.
"It's probably in the last five years that this topic has come to the forefront," said Pam Turner, manager of the department's water quality division. "We don't have enough research to know to what extent this affects humans. So we need guidance."
New testing technology gives scientists the ability to detect smaller quantities of chemicals in water than ever before, said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Briggs said the state, in partnership with Michigan State University, is seeking federal grants to research the issue. "We're seeing things we haven't been able to see before. The USGS study will open up a whole new field of chemistry," she said.
In Traverse City, water is discharged to the Boardman River, where U.S. scientists collected samples at three locations in 1999 as part of the survey that will be published March 15 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Sheridan Kidd-Haack, a research hydrologist with the geological survey's Michigan office, said she couldn't speak specifically about what substances were discovered in the river, but "it's safe to say some of these contaminants have been detected in those waters."
Medications such as codeine, antacids, cholesterol-lowering drugs, estrogen compounds, antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs have been found in streams across the United States.
In Michigan, caffeine, cholesterol drugs and pharmaceuticals such as hormone compounds, antibiotics and acetaminophen are among the substances that have been detected in water, according to the Michigan Environmental Council.
The amounts are so minute that some are measured in parts per trillion.
"Someone would have to drink the equivalent of five Olympic-size swimming pools to get one pill's worth" of many of the targeted drugs, said Mark Grayson, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
But how the drugs interact with one another is unknown. So is their effect on microscopic plankton, insect larvae and other sensitive organisms at the bottom of the food chain.
"When you have concentrations so extraordinarily low, it's difficult to measure effects," Daughton said. And it's even harder to determine the effects of dozens or hundreds of different compounds interacting with each other, he conceded. "It will be a long ordeal, teasing apart these issues we should be looking at," he said.
For more information on pharmaceuticals and other products in the environment, go to: http://www.epa.gov/esd/chemistry/pharma/faq.htm
Contact HUGH McDIARMID JR. at 248-586-2611 or email@example.com.
-- Anonymous, March 02, 2002