Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

North Jersey News
5 March 2003

N.J. water contains traces of daily life

By ALEX NUSSBAUM
Staff Writer

Drink a glass of water in New Jersey and you'll likely get more than you expect: prescription drugs, preservatives, caffeine, even a byproduct of nicotine.

Hundreds of these compounds, the residue of our chemical-intensive society, have been found in tap water around the state, according to research by the state and Rutgers University released Tuesday.

Meanwhile, epilepsy drugs, deodorants, and other compounds have been discovered in minute amounts in 30 of New Jersey's brooks and rivers in a separate study by state regulators and the United States Geological Survey.

From the Peckman River in West Paterson to the Wallkill in Sussex, researchers found traces of antibiotics, flame retardants, artificial colors, and fuel additives. Carbamazepine, a painkiller; AHTN, a fragrance in consumer products; and prometon, a herbicide, were most common. Two of the sites - the Passaic and Ramapo rivers - supply water to more than 1 million customers in North Jersey.

In both reports, the medicines and other chemicals were discovered in such tiny concentrations that many scientists think they pose no risk. Still, researchers admit that no one knows for sure. Many of the compounds have been studied in high doses, but not at low concentrations ingested over months, years, or a lifetime. Even less understood are the chemical cocktails now forming as they mix in the environment.

"The question is, 'Is this something the body deals with at low levels, metabolizes, and there's no problem? Or is this something that accumulates in the body?' We just don't know," said Brian Buckley, the Rutgers chemist who led the four-year drinking water study. "To be honest, we are just starting to deal with the question."

Buckley's study, one of the first in the nation to search for such chemicals in drinking water, startled researchers with the variety of drugs, consumer products, and industrial compounds detected. But it's in line with reports around the United States and Europe that have found hundreds of lakes, streams, and rivers testing positive for traces of the chemicals.

In another Geological Survey study of streams nationwide, including the Ho-Ho-Kus Brook and the Whippany River in Pine Brook, researchers found tiny amounts of acetaminophen, caffeine, the blood-pressure drug diltiazem, and antibiotics such as tetracycline and erythromycin.

Of the 139 streams across the country tested for chemicals ranging from steroids to insect repellents to detergents, 80 percent had at least one compound. Half had traces of seven or more.

Some of the most mundane fixtures of daily life, it turns out, could be the newest villains in the battle for clean water.

"What will bowl you over is the list of compounds," said Buckley, director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute in Piscataway. "What you're going to find is, certainly, a lot of water supplies with far more things in there than we ever imagined before."

Unlike conventional water problems from careless industries or illegal dumping, the study found much of the contamination comes from drugs and other chemicals that flow through our bodies, down our drains, and eventually end up in the lakes, rivers, and underground pools that feed our tap water.

As a result, environmental groups say governments need to pump more money into figuring out just what the chemicals can do. "Caffeine probably has very little effect at very low levels," said Rebecca Goldburg, a Montclair biologist with the group Environmental Defense. "But I'm not sure I want even low levels of birth control pills in my daughter's drinking water. I don't think we know for sure that any of this is a danger. But it's something that worries me."

The effect on animals is better known. European scientists have tied ethanol estradiol, an ingredient in birth control pills, to male fish that produce female hormones downstream of sewage treatment plants. In Florida, researchers have linked shrunken testes in alligators to pesticides in the lakes they prowl. Some worry that exposing bacteria to antibiotic-tinged rivers will breed germs resistant to medical care.

Before they can weigh the danger, experts across the country are scrambling simply to learn what's in the water.

"It's definitely a focus of the industry right now," said Joseph Bella, executive director of the Passaic Valley Water Commission, which draws on the Passaic to serve more than 1 million people in North Jersey.

The utility has yet to test for medications and other chemicals. Indeed, few are regulated by the government, because scientists didn't know they were there or hadn't considered them a priority. But Bella has applied to join research funded by the nation's water industry.

"Every surface water that's been tested in the country has seen it, so we're just assuming that it's here," he said.

The issue is emerging now for a variety of reasons: Testing methods have become more sensitive, able to pick up low levels of a chemical that may have been undetectable before. Some compounds may have been around for decades, but went unnoticed as officials concentrated on more pressing problems such as lead or bacteria in drinking water.

Others are newcomers, like the cornucopia of drugs developed in recent years for America's growing, graying population.

The cycle starts with an insulin injection, sunscreen slathered onto an arm, or a bottle of old pills dumped in the toilet. The body can excrete drugs and food additives unscathed, or turn them into new compounds untested for their environmental effects. The chemicals trickle through sewage systems or septic tanks and eventually back into rivers and underground aquifers that feed our taps.

On farms, hormones and antibiotics are pumped into livestock and then teem in manure that seeps into nearby streams. Other chemicals leak out of landfills, and even cemeteries. We may reach the afterlife, but our drugs are reincarnated.

For more than 30 years, sewage and water treatment plants have been designed to take out traditional pollutants such as bacteria and dirt. But although the plants may remove some of the drugs and other chemicals, they're not designed to get them all.

Buckley's study looked at 20 public water systems around the state, most of them well systems, including Fair Lawn, Ridgewood, Garfield, Park Ridge, and Waldwick.

The chemist and his colleagues at the DEP refused to discuss specific findings for those supplies. The findings are tentative, they said, and researchers are still trying to figure out what danger, if any, the compounds pose at low levels. That report could be out in a week or so, said DEP researcher Eileen Murphy.

But an overview of the results is like a walk through the local pharmacy or grocery store.

The most common contaminants were phthalates, the ingredients that make plastic flexible. Also found were BAH and BHT, preservatives used in potato chips, cereals, and hundreds of other foods. Cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine, and caffeine were also present.

In Fair Lawn, more than 160 compounds were found; in Garfield, nearly 60. The study found about 30 chemicals in Park Ridge and Ridgewood water and about 10 in Waldwick.

In each case, the concentrations were tiny, typically around a part per billion or less. That's the equivalent of one eyedropper's worth of impurity in 500 barrels of water, or a pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips.

For that reason, Buckley thinks it's unlikely the contaminants threaten people's health. Most have passed through humans at far higher concentrations on the first go around, he noted.

The study focused on water supplies near hazardous waste sites, landfills, or other known contamination, and many already treat their water to remove the more conventional contaminants expected from those toxic sites. Without that protection, the DEP and Rutgers studies found, things could have been worse.

Meanwhile, the USGS, following up its nationwide study, is finding local waters streaked with similar products.

Hydrologist Paul Stackelberg and the DEP's Lee Lippincott found 30 compounds in at least 10 percent of the samples. Nine compounds were in at least half.

Stackelberg would not discuss results for particular rivers and streams, saying the data was still under review. But in general, levels were miniscule, he said, far below health standards for those substances that are restricted. For most of the 60 compounds found, however, no standards exist. Until now, they've flown under regulators' radar.

Just what, if anything, should be done about the contamination is a murkier question. Researchers are only beginning to measure the breadth of the problem, said Christian Daughton, a Las Vegas toxicologist with the Environmental Protection Agency. It could take years to figure out what the low levels mean, especially in tandem with hundreds of other unusual chemicals.

The cost of converting water and sewer treatment plants could be "horrendous," Daughton warned.

At the tap, a home treatment system using activated carbon and reverse osmosis probably could scrub out most compounds, he added. But the systems have to be maintained, filters periodically replaced, so protection is only as good as a homeowner's discipline.

Stackelberg, the USGS scientist, lives outside Trenton in a home served by a well. It already has a treatment system, he said.

"I don't live under the impression that it's 100 percent pure water," he said.

"It's just a fact of life that the majority of compounds that we use in our everyday lives are going to be introduced into the environment one way or another."
***

IN OUR WATER

New studies by the state, the federal government, and university researchers in New Jersey have found a brew of medications, consumer products, and industrial chemicals in our lakes, streams, and drinking water. Among the finds:

# Caffeine - A little stimulant in your water may not harm you, scientists say. But they worry the combination of low levels of caffeine with other stimulants could hurt wildlife. The naturally-occurring chemical has been found to kill or repel slugs, snails, and frogs, and some agencies are experimenting with it as a pesticide.

# Cotinene - A breakdown product of nicotine, the material that makes cigarettes addictive.

# Phthalates - A group of compounds used to make plastics more flexible; used in everything from toothbrushes to car parts, cosmetics, and food packaging. Researchers say phthalates may mimic or block the effects of natural hormones in animals, leading to birth defects and other reproductive problems among wildlife. Its effect on humans, if any, hasn't been determined, the Centers for Disease Control says.

# BHA, BHT - Preservatives found in hundreds of foods, such as butter, milk, chewing gum, and beer. The Food and Drug Administration considers them safe. Some studies have linked them to cancer in lab animals, but, as antioxidants, they also may fight certain diseases.

# Prometon - A weed-killer considered "moderately toxic" to fish and other wildlife by the U.S. Agriculture Department. There have been no reports so far of long-term effects on humans.

# Carbamazepine - An anticonvulsant used to treat epilepsy and depression.

# AHTN - A fragrance common in laundry detergent and other household products. Large doses have been linked to cancer in some animals. European scientists have raised concerns about cancer, birth defects, and other effects in humans, but the harm from low levels is unknown.

 

 
     
     

 

 

 

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