AN AP INVESTIGATION : Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water

Mass. officials detail steps to keep pharmaceuticals from water supply, call for federal help

Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) _ Massachusetts environmental officials said Tuesday that state and federal researchers need to delve deeper in the possible health effects of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals found in drinking water.

Officials said the state also needs to reduce the level of pharmaceuticals entering the water system in the first place, in part by discouraging people from flushing unused pills _ a practice long recommended as the best way to dispose of old prescriptions.

State lawmakers called the special public hearing to address concerns raised in an Associated Press investigation that discovered tiny amounts of a vast array of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

"This is an issue that requires national leadership on evaluation, health risk assessment and corrective measures," said state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Laurie Burt. "But that doesn't mean that the commonwealth or other states are sitting on our hands."

Pharmaceuticals typically enter the water system either directly by being dumped, or indirectly by being excreted from humans or farm animals treated with veterinary medicines.

Since not all the compounds can be completely removed by wastewater plants, trace amounts can find their way into drinking water supplies.

Burt said the state has launched a number of initiatives to study the problem.

The state DEP has teamed with researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to test raw water samples for 12 different compounds and then test them again after they are treated with chemicals typically used to disinfect public water supplies to see how well they work.

The state is also cooperating on a national research project by the U.S. Geological Survey that will take samples from surface waters in Massachusetts, including the Merrimack River, and scan them for hundreds of compounds.

The study will then track the pharmaceuticals to see what happens as the water goes through the treatment process.

Officials from agencies such as the DEP, the Department of Public Health, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority are also planning a June "summit" to study the issue of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, Burt said.

An environmental bond bill now before the Legislature also includes funding for a research station in Lawrence that would give the state the capacity to better sample and test water samples for pharmaceuticals.

Burt said the state is also urging people throw away unused prescriptions in the trash _ after removing labels and sealing them up in part to discourage drug addicts from stealing pills.

The state is also looking at the possibility of creating "take back" programs where pharmacies would accept unused drugs and dispose of them.

Understanding the scope of the problem is difficult, according to James Shine, a chemist at the Harvard School of Public Health. There are thousands of substances, some of which are designed to be biologically active at very low levels.

While there's no reason to be alarmed, researchers and lawmakers also can't ignore the issue, he said.

"We need to frame the nature of these risks," Shine said. "What are the effects of chronic, low-level exposure?"

Suzanne Condon, assistant commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said there's universal agreement that actions need to be taken to reduce the level of pharmaceutical products in drinking water.

A first step is deciding which are potentially the most harmful and the most likely to escape current water treatment efforts.

"There needs to be a strategy to focus on those substances that pose the greatest risk of entering the water supply," Condon said.

Leslie Wood, director of state policy for Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, which represents brand-name drug companies, said there's no indication that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water cause health problems.

"There appears to be no demonstrable risk to human health from the presence of these products in drinking water," she said.

She said the industry has launched an education program that recommends people dispose of unused drugs in the trash.

State Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Health, called for the special hearing. He said policy makers need to keep their eyes on the issue.

"When we take our medications, we drink them down with a glass of water," he said. "Our concern is that when we're now drinking a glass of water, we don't want to be taking other people's medications."