Drug traces turn up in source waters for nation's biggest city
U.S. Water News Online
NEW YORK — Locals say this city makes the world's best bagels from the best water, piped in from rustic reservoirs up to 150 miles north. Yet few know of a secret ingredient in their source water: a dash of pharmaceuticals.
Research studies have turned up minute amounts of more than 15 drugs or their byproducts in several pristine-looking rivers, a reservoir, and aqueducts feeding the country's biggest water system.
Though barely measurable, these pharmaceuticals are present in a variety worthy of a medicine cabinet: drugs for aches, infections, seizures and high blood pressure; hormones for menopause; the active ingredient in a popular sedative; and caffeine — all bound for the city that never sleeps.
How did they reach waterways? The vast watershed, while mainly rural, stretches almost from Pennsylvania to Connecticut and encompasses lots of human activity. Human and veterinary medicines are excreted or discarded, and eventually enter source waters mostly through residential sewage or farm runoff.
And while these waters are processed at wastewater treatment plants upstate, much of the pharmaceutical residue passes right through, studies show.
It's unknown how much lingers each day by the time 1.1 billion gallons reach the faucets of more than 9 million people in the city and northern suburbs via a century-old network of aqueducts and tunnels.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the city's water system, responded to an Associated Press survey of water utilities, saying it has not tested its drinking water for pharmaceuticals, despite the findings in its watershed.
The tests that detected pharmaceuticals in the upstate source waters were conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and New York State Department of Health.
City water officials declined repeated requests for an interview and issued only a brief general statement: "New York City's drinking water continues to meet all federal and state regulations regarding drinking water quality in the watershed and the distribution system" — regulations that do not address pharmaceuticals in trace amounts.
As in other cities, human health risks from trace pharmaceuticals are uncertain, since concentrations in New York source waters are way below medical doses and undergo dilution as they mix with fresh water en route to the city.
Already, though, troubling studies indicate that traces of pharmaceuticals may be harming fish in New York City's Jamaica Bay, within sight of Manhattan's skyscrapers. Researcher Anne McElroy at Stony Brook University has found feminized male flounder there, and she links them to high levels of the female hormone estrone or other estrogenic chemicals discovered in the waterway.
Estrogen also has been found in the city's watershed in recent years. Upstate, the geological survey and state health agency also detected the heart medicine atenolol; anti-seizure drugs carbamazepine and primidone; relaxers diazepam and carisoprodol; infection fighters trimethoprim, clindamycin, and sulfamethoxazole; pain relievers ibuprofen, acetaminophen and codeine; and remains of caffeine and nicotine.
Despite all that, the federal government considers the New York City system to be so clean that it need not filter most of its water, as most big cities are required to do. When the filtering waiver was extended last year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg exulted: "I've always thought that New York City has some of the best water around, and now we've got confirmation from Washington."
However, filtration is meant mainly to remove germs, and the federal government hasn't required any testing of pharmaceuticals in source or drinking water. Though it lacks conventional treatment plants with filtering processes, New York City does disinfect and add chemicals to its drinking water. Plus, it is building a filtration plant for water from its Croton watershed — its smallest and closest source.
Patrick Phillips, a geological survey hydrologist who has studied drugs in the city's watershed, says recent sewage treatment upgrades probably catch some, though the systems aren't designed to. The city also is building a plant to disinfect with ultraviolet radiation the water taken from the major, upstate sectors of the watershed. Research shows that ultraviolet can degrade some pharmaceuticals.
"I think both the state and the city are aware that these things could be an issue and you could be proactive about it," Phillips says.
Few New Yorkers seem aware of their possible presence. The AP contacted more than two dozen water-testing companies across the metropolitan area, and none had ever been asked to check for pharmaceuticals.
Douglas LeVangie, a sales executive at Simpltek, says even the company's home water tests for disease-causing germs sell modestly in New York City, with its global reputation for wholesome water.
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