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Drugs and water update

Science, political will, dollars and pharmaceutical sense.

April 17, 2012  By Treena Hein

Organizations and governments around the world are now recognizing that
pharmaceuticals are potentially a new class of water pollutants.

Organizations and governments around the world are now recognizing that pharmaceuticals are potentially a new class of water pollutants. A large assortment of drugs, from antibiotics, anti-depressants and birth control pills to chemotherapy ingredients, painkillers and tranquilizers, have been detected in water sources.

These substances get into the water treatment system, and perhaps even into ground water, the same ways many other substances do. People in hospitals, nursing homes and households flush unused medicines down toilets, or dispose of them through their garbage, where in a landfill, they can potentially be present in leachate. Sewage can also contain incompletely metabolized medicines.


In addition, livestock can produce manure that contains traces of antibiotics and other medicines, which after being spread on fields, can then wash off into surface water and even move into ground water. Some studies suggest that pharmaceuticals such as “endocrine-disrupters” that are present in water sources can contribute to the development of abnormal sexual characteristics and behaviour in some species of fish, such as males producing eggs and females that don’t spawn.

But as is the case with many potential water quality threats, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding pharmaceuticals. There is no agreement, for example, on what percentage of drugs go unconsumed in Canada or across the world and what percentage of those reach water sources and pose a risk.

“The water treatment industry has been wrought with comments and claims on the issues regarding pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in water,” observes Kevin Wong, director of the Canadian Water Quality Association (CWQA).

Existing tests for pharmaceuticals are very specific and expensive in many cases, notes Wong, and tests don’t even exist for some of them. He is concerned that many members of the public don’t understand that “this is new territory for the point-of-use/point-of-entry water treatment industry. There are no guidelines developed as yet, so…what is in the water, or what the safe levels are, is yet to be determined.”

In 2010, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment reported that at a recent Council meeting, “pharmaceuticals in groundwater was raised as an emerging issue. There are uncertainties concerning the behaviour of these constituents, together with their potential impact on human health and ecosystems.” A summary of the recent World Health Organization technical report Pharmaceuticals in drinking-water, stated that “although current risk assessments indicate that the very low concentrations of pharmaceuticals found in drinking-water are very unlikely to pose any appreciable risks to human health, knowledge gaps exist.”

To fill some of these knowledge gaps, Health Canada is conducting a two-year investigation called “National Survey of Disinfection By-Products and Selected Emerging Contaminants in Canadian Drinking Water.” The final results will be presented at scientific conferences and then published in scientific journals this year, says Health Canada media relations officer Gary Scott Holub.

“The results from this study will help the department determine if new or emerging disinfection by-products and other emerging contaminants [like pharmaceuticals] identified in the scientific literature are present in Canadian drinking water supplies, and establish the priorities for guideline development,” Holub says. “The survey results will help [also] determine the need for any action to minimize risk to human health.” He adds: “While there are no known adverse human health effects attributed to the extremely low presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, research continues to focus on detection and removal.”

Implementing water protection laws
In provincial and territorial jurisdictions, policies are being drawn up to implement water legislation. When the time came to start drafting the policies relating to Ontario’s Clean Water Act, for example, “municipalities had first choice on taking the lead,” says Dave Schultz, manager of communications for the Grand River Conservation Authority.

“Most larger municipalities took that route and in cases where the municipality was concerned that it didn’t have the capacity, conservation authorities took the lead but worked closely with them.”

A source protection committee leads the development of policies in most other regions. These bodies work with municipalities, the public and many stakeholders to ensure that policies are in harmony with existing regulations and procedures, that they’re equitable across the watershed, and so on.

There are 19 source protection areas in Ontario, and Lake Erie is one of the biggest in terms of area and population. Over the past few years, the Lake Erie Source Protection Region Committee has guided the development of four source protection plans, one for each area (watershed/Conservation Authority) within the region. Committee members represent the general public, several First Nations, business owners, government, industries such as aggregates and agriculture, and more. The Ontario Minister of the Environment will approve the four plans, and municipal governments will implement them in co-operation with provincial government agencies, as directed in the Clean Water Act. Although one draft Committee report refers to pharmaceuticals, Schultz notes that they “are not listed in the Clean Water Act at present, and whether they would be added in the future is a decision for the provincial government. So the bottom line is that they won’t be addressed in this round of plans, but could be considered in a future round if the Act is changed.” He also notes, however, that there are other pieces of provincial and federal legislation that affect water in Ontario as well.

With the release of the Health Canada survey later this year, at least some direction and guidance for industry will be provided. However, Wong believes “the road to evaluating the risk, developing the science, and determining the allowable concentrations in drinking water may be a long one.”

advice on the Proper disposal of unused drugs
On its website, Health Canada provides advice to Canadians on how to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals:
“Check to see if your pharmacy has a drug take-back program that collects and disposes of the public’s unused and expired drugs in an environmentally-safe manner. Most pharmacies do, and programs exist in many provinces and territories across the country. If your area does not have such a program, contact your municipality to see if it collects drugs. Various municipalities have put in place different collection modes for household hazardous waste, including drugs. Those include collection days, mobile depots, and permanent depots.”

There have been three national government-run drug take-back events in the U.S. since late 2010. Legislation was introduced in September of 2011 that would create a national industry-funded drug take-back program, but it is not expected to pass due to budgetary restraints. A few U.S. states have created programs, but all are apparently quickly running out of funding. Cities and counties in various states also run small-scale collection programs, using drop boxes or collaborations with pharmacies.

Treena Hein is a science writer based in Ontario.

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