News Feature | December 11, 2013

Government Study: Unregulated Chemicals Seeping Into Water Supply

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


A new government study says that chemicals are slipping into tap water through water treatment plants across the country. 

According to the Vancouver Free Press, "Traces of unregulated chemicals were found in drinking water from more than one-third of U.S. water utilities in a nationwide sampling." The article cited "new, unpublished research by federal scientists."

The chemicals include an herbicide, caffeine, an antibacterial compound, an antidepressent, and 11 perfluorinated compounds, the report said. Eighteen chemicals not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act were found. 

"Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the EPA analyzed single samples of untreated and treated water from utilities that voluntarily participated in the project," the report said. 

“The good news is the concentrations are generally pretty low,” Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist with the USGS who worked on the study, said in the report.  “But there’s still the unknown. Are there long-term consequences of low-level exposure to these chemicals?”

What did the research effort look like?

The U.S. Geological Survey and the US Environmental Protection Agency jointly conducted a study of CECs in water from 25 drinking water treatment (DWTP) plants across the United States, sampling ground and surface water sources prior to and after treatment processes commonly used to produce drinking water," according to an abstract.

Pharmaceuticals were detected in both source and treated water samples, "ranging in concentration from 2.5 to 940 ng/L, with more frequent and higher concentrations generally occurring in source water samples. Metformin, tramadol, and carbamazepine were the most frequently detected pharmaceuticals in source water samples at maximum concentrations of 730, 42, and 40 ng/L, respectively," it said. 

The upshot is that new regulations may be on the way. 

“We’re hoping through this work the EPA will do a much more intensive contaminant candidate list and develop new methods and requirements for drinking water plants,” Edward Furlong, a scientist with the USGS who participated in the study, said in the news report. 

While the EPA regulates drinking water, the U.S. Geological Survey has a jurisdictional stake in water issues, as well. It assesses "the quality of the available, untreated resource (source water), such as water upstream from treatment plants and water from public-supply and domestic wells," according to the agency. 

Water Online has previously reported that certain drugs found in water are not regulated by the EPA but appear to be "on the EPA’s radar via the Third Contaminant Candidate List (CCL3) and the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) — precursors to possible regulatory action."

Image credit: "Illegal Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse," © 2012 epSosDe, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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