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Great Lakes Article:

Early tests: So far, Erie's water in the clear
By David Bruce,
Published March 16, 2008

Erie's drinking water contained no evidence of drugs when it was tested in 2007.

Erie Water Works, which supplies water to about 200,000 people in the city of Erie and in Millcreek, Harborcreek, Wesleyville, Lawrence Park and Summit townships, is not currently required to test for pharmaceuticals.

But it sent samples for testing when the federal government announced all water systems that serve 100,000 people or more will be tested for drugs every three months for one year, beginning in December.

"We decided to do our own preliminary testing, so we sent samples to an independent lab," said Paul Vojtek, Erie Water Works chief executive. "Everything came back negative, including pharmaceuticals."

That doesn't mean Erie's water is drug free, however.

The tests were only able to measure for concentrations as small as one part per million, Vojtek said. Many of the water systems in the Associated Press story had water samples containing prescription and over-the-counter drugs measured in parts per billion or trillion.

"We know there are some (drugs) in the water," said Bob McCann, press secretary for the Office of the Great Lakes, a Michigan state agency committed to protecting and improving the Great Lakes. "There's no reason to get alarmed, but it raises the question: What effect will drinking this water for 20, 30 years have on the body?"

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will conduct more extensive testing later this year on water samples taken from all over Pennsylvania, including Erie and Crawford counties.

"We'll be looking for pharmaceuticals, hormones, antibiotics," said DEP press secretary Neil Weaver. "We're just wrapping up the collection part of the study. We should have results in about a year."

Pharmaceuticals end up in the water supply when people take the drugs and excrete them naturally or flush unused drugs down the toilet.

The DEP is starting a pilot program in southeastern Pennsylvania that is designed to encourage people not to flush away their unwanted pills.

"It's called the 'Take Back' program," Weaver said. "Nursing homes and hospitals will let people know they will collect unused medications and dispose of them properly, so they don't get dumped."

If future tests show Erie's drinking water contains traces of drugs, Vojtek said, Erie Water Works has a solution.

Renovation work at the Sommerheim water-treatment plant includes switching from charcoal and sand to pressurized membranes to filter water.

"It will block the pharmaceuticals," Vojtek said. "It's just one step down from reverse osmosis."

DAVID BRUCE can be reached at 870-1736 or by e-mail.

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