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Trace Amounts of Pharmaceuticals Bring Whole New Meaning To “It Must Be Something In The Water”

Whenever another high school from the Seattle region won a jazz festival, our pristine drinking water was always given full credit. Often when an outstanding athlete, musician, or scholar hails from a region already plentiful in their kind, people joke that there must be something in the water supply that gives them a specific advantage in their field. While the validity of this is debatable, there is no question whether certain areas are more susceptible to water contamination. Even after standardized treatment of wastewater, pharmaceuticals still persist and are released into the ecosystem, whether it be into the ocean or via fertilization of crops.

Currently there are no EPA regulations on levels of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in drinking water or wastewater, even though trace levels have been detected for the last forty years. Wastewater must undergo primary and secondary treatment in order to be released, with some receiving tertiary treatment for use as “gray water”. However, these treatments are not fully comprehensive, and some minor contaminants remain in the water after all treatments have been administered. One particular PPCP in question is ethynylestradiol, which is commonly used as an oral contraceptive. It is known to have had “hermaphroditic” impacts on male fish, essentially “feminizing” them - yet another anthropogenic effect on the ecosystem. It is only a matter of time before the impacts of PPCPs’ presence in the water is apparent in humans as well. Even though there are not significant amounts of PPCPs in drinking water supplies (the maximum concentration ever found of meprobamate, a PPCP, is 0.000042 mg/L -- in order to receive a single therapeutic dose, one would have to drink >4.7 million liters of water in one day), the potential for rising concentrations is significant.

Using the Hyperion Water Treatment Plant as an example, the wastewater treated there ends up in the ocean, in crop fields, and in industrial settings. Although the water is not directly used by humans, the implications of PPCPs on the ecosystem and humans’ place in said ecosystem (not to say that humans are more important) are inevitable and could already have negative consequences that are not yet known. The EPA has jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act to regulate the presence of PPCPs in water supplies, and similar to other pressing environmental issues, it needs to be addressed before it becomes a noticeable concern. Pushed aside any longer, and maybe the saying, “it must be something in the water”, will hold true -- at least for trending genetic mutation or abnormalities, that is.

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