5 March 2003
water contains traces of daily life
a glass of water in New Jersey and you'll likely get more than you
expect: prescription drugs, preservatives, caffeine, even a byproduct
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
of the most mundane fixtures of daily life, it turns out, could
be the newest villains in the battle for clean water.
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
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.
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."
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.
they can weigh the danger, experts across the country are scrambling
simply to learn what's in the water.
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
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.
surface water that's been tested in the country has seen it, so
we're just assuming that it's here," he said.
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.
are newcomers, like the cornucopia of drugs developed in recent
years for America's growing, graying population.
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.
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.
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.
study looked at 20 public water systems around the state, most of
them well systems, including Fair Lawn, Ridgewood, Garfield, Park
Ridge, and Waldwick.
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.
an overview of the results is like a walk through the local pharmacy
or grocery store.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the USGS, following up its nationwide study, is finding local waters
streaked with similar products.
Paul Stackelberg and the DEP's Lee Lippincott found 30 compounds
in at least 10 percent of the samples. Nine compounds were in at
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.
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.
cost of converting water and sewer treatment plants could be "horrendous,"
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.
the USGS scientist, lives outside Trenton in a home served by a
well. It already has a treatment system, he said.
don't live under the impression that it's 100 percent pure water,"
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."
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
- 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.