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Great Lakes Article:


Down drain, they remain
By Tom Meersman
The Star Tribune
Published November 14th, 2004


Shampoo, bug spray and that morning cup of java linger in the environment after they're showered off or tossed down the drain, according to the most extensive study of Minnesota waters ever conducted.

Caffeine, synthetic musk used in personal-care products, a flame retardant, an herbicide, the popular insect repellent DEET and other pharmaceuticals, products and chemicals are part of a complex brew being found in waters around the state.

Little is known about the risk from everyday flushing, dumping and pouring out of familiar chemicals that make lives healthier, easier or at least more pleasant-smelling -- especially at the low levels detected. Thirteen of the chemicals, however, are known to disrupt the hormones and sexual development of some fish or other animals, the study found.

Scientists found 74 chemicals at 65 sites across the state. The samples were taken from rivers and streams near municipal water supplies and sewage treatment plants, treated drinking water and water below landfills and livestock lagoons. The study, by three government agencies from late 2000 to 2002, did not attempt to identify the chemicals' sources.

"Because they are a constant source, everyday aquatic organisms are bathed in these compounds, and I don't think anybody knows how that affects them," said Kathy Lee, a hydrologist for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and chief author of the study.

The study, which cost $564,000, was presented at an international water conference last month in Minneapolis. Other researchers were from the Minnesota Health Department and Pollution Control Agency.

Many chemicals were found just downstream of four sewage treatment plants at East Grand Forks, Rochester, Duluth and St. Paul. The plants use various technologies to remove contaminants in sewage and industrial waste, but traces of many compounds get through.

At the metro plant in St. Paul, about 200 million gallons of wastewater are treated each day, and released into the Mississippi River. Like many plants, it removes metals and several pollutants, but not many of the hormones, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals flushed into toilets or rinsed down drains.

"We're not designed to remove these chemicals, and we're not the source of them," said Rebecca Flood, environmental manager for the plant operated by Metropolitan Council Environmental Services.

She said that detecting those compounds at such low levels -- often in the parts per billion -- is cutting-edge research. Flood said the council has supported research into the emerging contaminants.

Drinking water

Traces of some chemicals also were detected in intakes of municipal water-treatment plants at Moorhead, East Grand Forks, St. Cloud, Mankato, St. Paul and Minneapolis.

After the water was treated, it showed either no contaminants or barely detectable levels, said Doug Mandy, manager of the drinking water protection section for the Health Department.

"From a health standpoint, we're fairly certain that this is not a problem at the levels that we found," Mandy said. "But our concern is that these numbers will continue to grow over time because people will continue to use these items or products and they will continue to enter the environment."

Studies elsewhere have found a similar chemical brew in waters. Many of the compounds are not regulated as water pollutants, although federal officials are considering whether to set limits for some of them. The study did not include some chemicals that previously have been found in water and already have drinking water standards, such as the weed-killer atrazine.

Leroy Folmar, a retired research physiologist for the Environmental Protection Agency, said it's not surprising that scientists with the latest equipment are detecting dozens of compounds. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

"When you are prescribed medication of some kind, it is usually way more than your body requires, so it is excreted and much of the drug or chemical ends up in the sewage treatment plant," he said. Folmar said drugs with sexual side effects eventually could become a problem for drinking water quality downstream, and antibiotics in the water may result in strains of bacteria that become resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Another major concern arising from this and similar studies is the effect of natural and synthetic hormones -- or chemicals that mimic hormones -- on aquatic creatures. In the mid-1990s, while studying carp and walleye in Minnesota, Folmar found that male fish in the Mississippi just below the metro sewage treatment plant were becoming "feminized." Male fish had depressed levels of testosterone and were producing a yolk protein normally made only by female fish. Female walleye near the plant had five times the normal levels of estrogen in their blood compared to those taken elsewhere.

Not going away

The detected chemicals are a persistent problem because they are in products used to make life easier and keep people healthier, but then are dumped into landfills or flushed down the drain -- sometimes in vast quantities.

Even though some of the detected chemicals may degrade quickly, the environmental problem doesn't go away because more are added continually to the waters, said Fardin Oliaei, emerging contaminants coordinator at the Pollution Control Agency. She said that drugmakers and medical authorities should reconsider their advice for consumers to flush unused medicines down the toilet.

Another chemical found frequently in the state's waters is a flame retardant widely used in foam for furniture, cars and building insulation, and in various resins and adhesives.

A pair of synthetic musks also detected frequently in the study are used to mask scents or add fragrance to shampoos, perfumes and household cleaners. Keri Hornbuckle, associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, said that at least a million pounds of the chemicals are used in the United States each year. They degrade slowly to give products long shelf lives, she said.

"You'd be hard-put to find someone who doesn't use these chemicals in some personal care product," said Hornbuckle, whose own research found the fragrance in Lake Michigan. "It's amazing that we're releasing such large quantities of them every day, yet we have almost no information about their potential costs to the environment."

To learn what's in specific waters, read the study at www.startribune.com/71.

Tom Meersman is at meersman@startribune.com.

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