AN AP INVESTIGATION : Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water

NJ lawmakers told effects of drugs in water unknown

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ New Jersey lawmakers were told Monday that it is uncertain whether trace amounts of medications found in the state's drinking water can adversely affect human health or wildlife.

Jeffrey M. Fischer of the U.S. Geological Survey told an Assembly committee additional research is needed on the potential effects.

"We do know that they're in the streams," Fischer said. "The unknown questions that we have are what are the human health effects and other aspects of that. What are the effects on the ecology, the fish in the streams, other animals that live in the streams?"

Monday's hearing follows an inquiry by The Associated Press' National Investigative Team, which found water suppliers usually don't tell customers how screening found medication in their water, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones.

The series showed how drugs _ mostly traces of what's been taken by people, excreted and flushed down the toilet _ have gotten into the water supplies of at least 24 major metropolitan areas from Southern California to northern New Jersey.

Assemblyman Douglas Fisher, D-Cumberland, said the hearing showed more needs to be learned.

"Not to raise any huge alarms, but to get our arms around this before it becomes a problem we would have difficulty dealing with," said Fisher, chairman of the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which held Monday's hearing.

Some of the most detailed testing was done at the Passaic Valley Water Commission in northern Jersey, where a drinking water treatment facility downstream from sewage treatment plants chemically removes sediments from water, disinfects it with chlorine and runs it through extra filtering.

Although the treatment decreased pharmaceutical concentrations, some samples heading into drinking water pipes contained the painkiller codeine, an anti-convulsant drug, the remnants of a drug to reduce chest pains and caffeine.

The Passaic Valley Water Commission serves more than 800,000 people in Clifton, Passaic and Paterson and surrounding towns.

Its CEO, Joseph A. Bella, said safe drinking water is its priority. It uses advanced treatment processes and is involved in several efforts to study how to remove traces of prescriptions and other contaminants from water, he said.

Mark Tompeck, chairman of the New Jersey American Water Works Association, said advanced treatment technologies can remove the traces.

"However, before pursuing these extensive and expensive treatment systems, it is important to determine if they are needed based upon health effects studies," Tompeck said.

Eileen Murphy, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's science and technology division director, said there is scant human health and ecological information available on most contaminants, especially when they are found in combination.

"Any one contaminant may not be of concern, but when combined with other contaminants may pose a human health or ecological issue, and it's the absence of this necessary information that is cause for concern," Murphy said.

Asked by Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, whether the traces were affecting people, Murphy said, "Potentially. We don't have all the information to make the assessment at this time, unfortunately."

David Pringle of the New Jersey Environmental Federation told lawmakers that the danger seems obvious.

"Common sense dictates that it's not a good idea to drink somebody else's medicine," he said.

But Anthony Matarazzo of New Jersey American Water, said the levels are "extremely small." He said a person would have to drink 100 million gallons to get a typical dose of a prescription drug.

"It is very unlikely that there is a harm to human health," said Leslie Wood of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Wood said 90 percent of the drugs found in water come through human excretion, not from flushing drugs down a toilet. But Albano suggested pharmaceutical companies put warnings on their packaging telling people not to flush drugs down the toilet.

Wood said pharmaceutical companies recommend throwing unused drugs into the household garbage.