U.S. Water News Online
NEW YORK — New York City's drinking water must be tested to determine whether trace amounts of pharmaceuticals are flowing from residents' faucets, City Council members insisted in an emergency hearing called in response to an Associated Press investigation.
The city's Department of Environmental Protection tests its drinking water for hundreds of contaminants daily but doesn't inspect for pharmaceuticals, despite research showing minute concentrations of 16 drugs or byproducts in its watershed in upstate New York, including medications for infections, seizures and high blood pressure.
As part of its five-month PharmaWater investigation, the AP surveyed 62 major water providers nationwide; pharmaceuticals were detected in the drinking water of 24 of those systems, serving 41 million Americans.
Officials at 34 major water providers, including New York — which has the world's largest unfiltered water supply — said tests have not been conducted.
“To protect health, we need to be informed about what is in our drinking water,” said council member James Gennaro, the head of the Environmental Protection Committee, who called the hearing.
Tests that detected pharmaceuticals in the upstate source waters were made by the U.S. Geological Survey and New York State Department of Health.
The city's Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the system providing water to 9 million, continues to resist calls for testing, contending there's no regulator-approved test or regimen for detecting pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies.
“It is far too early for DEP to make any predictions about the long-term need for any particular treatment technology as a response to the presence of pharmaceuticals,” said Paul Rush, deputy commissioner for water supply.
The agency has a public awareness campaign asking residents near the upstate watersheds not to flush drugs down the toilet but hasn't created a protocol for testing drinking water, Rush said. The DEP also is participating in a city and state roundtable about disposal issues related to pharmaceuticals in water supplies, he said.
But Gennaro said the city cannot wait for the federal government to act and suggested legislation to require testing and to develop a plan to filter the drugs from the water, if necessary.
“At the end of the day, it's not the USGS that has to drink the water, it's not the state (Department of Environmental Conservation) that drinks it up in Albany; we drink the water,” he said.
Gennaro and other members of the committee criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health for declining to appear at the hearing.
Though measured in concentrations of parts per billion or trillion, it is unknown how much of the drugs found in the city's watersheds lingers by the time 1.1 billion gallons reaches the city and northern suburbs daily via a century-old network of aqueducts and tunnels.
The drugs reached waterways through human activity along the vast and mainly rural watershed, which stretches almost from Pennsylvania to Connecticut. 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.
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 further diluted with fresh water en route to the city.
Though New York does not filter its water, it does disinfect and add chemicals. It also is building a new filtration plant for water from its Croton watershed — its smallest and closest source.
Gennaro also cited studies mentioned in the AP series that indicate 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 has linked them to high levels of the female hormone estrone or other estrogenic chemicals discovered in the waterway.
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