Meds wind up in tap water despite drug disposal regulations

Christina Jewett, California Watch
July, 2010

The federal government has a patchwork of laws attempting to deal with the problem of pharmaceutical drugs showing up in city tap water across the nation.

Senator Herb Kohl, D-Wis., highlighted the issue during a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.

“We need to provide Americans with better information about what to do with their leftover medications. Contradicting guidelines put forth by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service need to be reconciled,” Kohl said in a statement. “Americans deserve a safe and effective way to get drugs away from their homes and keep them out of our drinking water.”

California has its own set of rules, in addition to federal guidelines, but they have not resulted in water that’s free of unwanted pharmaceuticals.

An Associated Press investigation published last year probed the issue of meds in the water, finding that pharmaceuticals flow through the taps in the homes of 41 million people living in 24 metropolitan areas.

Among them are Los Angeles, Long Beach and Riverside County, where water tested positive for traces of anti-anxiety and anti-convulsant medications. The probe also turned up a female sex hormone in San Francisco water.

The journalists also found nine medications in watersheds near Los Angeles, Long Beach and Riverside. While the drugs found in those areas were not identified, testers found traces of Prozac, a blood pressure medication and an antibiotic, among others, in an area defined as Southern California.

The issue is not widely discussed or disclosed to consumers, AP reporters found: When water providers find pharmaceuticals in drinking water, they rarely tell the public. When researchers make the same discoveries, they usually don’t identify the cities involved. There are plenty of reasons offered for the secrecy: concerns about national security, fears of panic, a feeling that the public will not understand – even confidentiality agreements. ‘That’s a really sensitive subject,’ said Elaine Archibald, executive director of California Urban Water Agencies, an 11-member organization composed of the largest water providers in California. She said many customers ‘don’t know how to interpret the information. They hear something has been detected in source water and drinking water, and that’s cause for alarm – just because it’s there.’

A Southern California coalition of government agencies compiled a “No Drugs Down the Drain” website on the issue, breaking down the health impacts of tainted water. The major concerns to date regarding the presence of medications in surface water bodies have been increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics and interference with growth and reproduction in aquatic organisms such as fish and frogs. Aquatic organisms are sensitive to low levels of exposure and are particularly vulnerable when exposure occurs during developmentally sensitive times such as before birth and during juvenile stages of growth. Effects of exposure can include a gender-ratio imbalance (e.g., more females than males within a given population), intersex conditions (the presence of both male and female reproductive organs within an individual organism), poor egg hatching success, decreased fertility and growth and altered behavior (e.g., lethargy and disorientation).

California has regulations in addition to federal rules. The Department of Toxic Substances Control defines some drugs as “medical waste” and watches how large medical providers, such as hospitals and clinics, dispose of them. Still, the agency does not regulate smaller medical providers or individuals. The agency is taking a closer look at the issue, though, convening a stakeholder meeting July 20 on “model programs” dealing with home-generated medical waste. For now, The Associated Press published a guide on how to get rid of unwanted medications and the DTSC lists disposal sites in Northern and Southern California.