Don’t Drink the Water (Part 2)

July 28, 2008 at 6:00 am 1 comment

Being an avid hiker and cyclist, my interest in protecting the environment started simply as an extension of my hobbies. Working to protect green spaces was in my best interest as it meant my friends and I would have more places to enjoy the outdoors. It wasn’t until I was married and had children that I realized my efforts were only slowing down the superficial damage that was being done and not addressing the deeper issues were the real destruction was taking place.

When my oldest daughter was about two years old, we noticed that she exhibited strange behavioral traits following meals. My wife, the biologist, started researching to find the root of the problem. In the process we learned a lot about food allergies, especially related to the man-made chemicals we ingest as a result of a company’s effort to make their food look, taste, and smell better. One of the most surprising pieces of information that we discovered was that a majority of the colors, flavors, and preservatives put into our food are petroleum based products.

We began to alter our lifestyle, adding more naturally grown and whole foods to our meals. However, try as we might, we simply cannot completely remove all the harmful chemicals from our diets completely. Why? Because they’re not in our food, they’re in our water.

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products, known in the water industry as PPCPs, are a group of compounds consisting of medications, both human and veterinary, and consumer products, such as fragrance, lotion, sunscreen, cleaning products, and others. The compounds exist in our water in trace amounts and is not just a problem here in the U.S. Drinking water and wastewater effluent sampling conducted in Europe and Asia showed PPCPs are a problem for our overseas neighbors as well.

PPCPs can be introduced into the environment in several ways. One of the methods is flushing unused medications, personal hygiene, and household cleaning products down the toilet or sink. However, the most common method is excreting unabsorbed medications into the sewage system. Essentially, excess chemicals not absorbed by the body are passed outside the body through sweat, urine, and feces. Every drink you take from the tap contains any number of chemicals including anti-depressants, hormone treatments, and heart medications. Current water treatment methods are simply ineffectual at removing PPCPs so, once they enter the water system, they’re there to stay.

Water professionals have the technology today to detect more substances – at lower levels – than ever before. As analytical methods improve, many compounds such as those listed above are being found at extremely low levels, typically single-digit parts per trillion (ppt). Drinking water standards are typically set in the parts per billion range, which is 1000 times higher. While these trace substances may be detected at very low levels in source waters, people regularly consume or expose themselves to products containing these substances in much higher concentrations through medicines, food and beverage and other sources.

There is also a great deal of research as to the effectiveness of current treatment techniques on removal of PPCPs and other organic compounds. Because of the wide array of chemical structures and properties associated with PPCPs, no one single treatment can remove them all. Technologies under investigation include membranes and GAC which physically remove compounds and ozone or UV which break them down.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains an active program called the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) to identify contaminants in public drinking water that warrant detailed study. While the CCL does not currently include any PPCPs, EPA will likely consider these compounds in the future.

The best and most cost-effective way to ensure safe water at the tap is to keep our source waters clean. Never flush unused medications down toilet or sink. Instead, check with your pharmacy to see if they accept medications for disposal, or contact your local health department regarding proper disposal of any materials that could potentially harm the environment.

As a society, we should encourage policies that protect source water from contaminants introduced by human activity. As always, consumers who are concerned about their tap water should check their local utility’s consumer confidence report and contact their utility with any questions or concerns.



Entry filed under: Environment, Informational, Research. Tags: , , .

Hate Your Job? Recycle It. Shrink

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. scienceguy288  |  July 29, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Out in Buffalo, this was a huge news deal, especially because much of this untreated water was being dumped into Lake Erie.


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