News Feature | November 29, 2013

Drugs Slip Through Sewage Plants Into Great Lakes

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Sewage plants only remove about half of pharmaceuticals from treated wastewater. 

That's according to a new report from the Joint International Commission, a body overseeing jurisdictions on the border of the Great Lakes. 

The report examined "the need to assess the effectiveness of existing wastewater treatment technologies in the basin to remove Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CEC). It also aimed to "gain insight on potential advanced technologies to improve their removal."

Though the report said the impact of CECs is not clear, it concluded that "better water treatment is needed," Environmental Health News reported

Which drugs were most prevalent?

"Six chemicals were detected frequently and had a low rate of removal in treated effluent: a herbicide, an anti-seizure drug, two antibiotic drugs, an antibacterial drug and an anti-inflammatory drug," Environmental Health News said. 

And there were some runners-up. "Caffeine, acetaminophen and estriol (a natural estrogen) also were frequently detected in sewage but had high removal rates," the article said. 

Many chemicals were getting through wastewater treatment plants. 

"The wastewater plants had a low removal rate (less than 25 percent chance of removing 75 percent or more) for 11 of the 42 chemicals," the report said. "The weight of evidence suggests that at least half of the 42 substances examined in the present study are likely to be removed in municipal wastewater treatment plants."

The Detroit Free Press noted that this report marks the first time scientists have studied this issue in the Great Lakes. 

Rebecca Klaper, a co-author of the study, "said the expectation has been that the Great Lakes' huge volumes of water would dilute the [drugs] into undetectability. Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are connected, together have 2 quadrillion, or 2,000 trillion, gallons of water, for example."

The issue is not regulated, but the EPA offers some material on the topic. And this problem may not stay unregulated for long. 

Pharmaceuticals "are on the EPA’s radar via the Third Contaminant Candidate List (CCL3) and the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR)—precursors to possible regulatory action," Water Online previously reported

Drugs in water may have life-altering effects. 

"Something fishy is going on in the water, and not just with the fish. Recent research suggests that exposure to Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in drinking water may subject humans, particularly males, to gender-morphing and other reproductive system alterations," Water Online reported. 


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