U.S. Water News Online
PHILADELPHIA -- City leaders here have pressed for less government secrecy and stronger action to deal with the presence of trace pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies, as communities across the nation continue to voice unease over these contaminants.
"It really is time for the national government to step up and say, 'This is the national standard.' When you don't do that, you get what you get — and this is unacceptable," declared Blondell Reynolds Brown, a city councilwoman.
Brown, who made her appeal during a City Council committee hearing, was referring to an Associated Press investigative series last month that detailed how minute concentrations of prescription and over-the-counter drugs have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, including those served by the Philadelphia Water Department.
During the hearing, Christopher S. Crockett, Philadelphia Water Department's research director, promised to share more details of future findings with the public, interested environmental groups and governmental agencies.
Council members said they were upset to learn from the AP stories, instead of local water officials, that the city's water carries more pharmaceuticals than any of the 24 major metropolitan areas that tested positive.
"Our concerns stem from the fact that the water department did not inform city residents," committee chairwoman Marian B. Tasco told Crockett and other water department administrators. She said the news report set off a local firestorm.
Around this city, tests have revealed 17 different drugs or byproducts in the drinking system and 32 in the watershed _ the highest numbers detected in drinking water and watershed of any of the metropolitan areas surveyed by the AP. Water department officials recently revealed they had originally provided higher numbers of detections due to a clerical error.
Water officials said the concentrations are minute, measured in parts per trillion, way below medical doses. "There is currently no indication that such infinitesimal concentrations pose any public health risk," said city Water Commissioner Bernard Brunwasser.
However, Robert Wendelgass, deputy national director of Clean Water Action, testified that even such low concentrations of some chemicals can be harmful. "Common sense suggests it is not a good idea to drink other people's medicine," he said.
Council members encouraged the water department to pursue programs to take back unused drugs, so they aren't intentionally flushed down the toilet directly into sewage and waterways. The water department said it would cooperate with a pilot program along those lines at four senior centers in coming months.
Human and veterinary pharmaceuticals can enter waterways from farm runoff and toilets, where people excrete unabsorbed medicine or throw away unused drugs. Water providers around the country rarely inform the public when drug traces are detected.
This city draws its drinking water from the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, which flow past many farms and communities on their way to Philadelphia. Ordinary water treatment does not remove all pharmaceutical residue.
Brunwasser said more drugs turned up here simply because more substances were tested for than other places.
So far, the federal government has set no national standards for pharmaceuticals in waterways or taps, though the Environmental Protection Agency views drugs in the water as a legitimate, growing concern. Tasco said the City Council may draft a resolution asking for the federal government to consider national standards.
The risks from such low drug levels are poorly understood. Drug companies, water providers and some scientists downplay any danger.
However, because drugs are designed to impact the human body, other scientists believe that even these tiny amounts may cause harm over decades, especially in combination with other drugs.
Scientific studies indicate that some drugs, including sex hormones and psychiatric drugs, can harm aquatic species. A smaller, emerging body of research suggests that tiny concentrations of some drugs can interfere with functions of human cells.
The AP series, which Brunwasser praised for "directing attention to this emerging science," has spurred a series of calls for action in Congress and around the country. Illinois announced it will start a water testing program, and the New York City Council held an emergency hearing. A panel of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works plans to hold a hearing to assess risk and national remedies.
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