Drug disposal advocated for lake's sake
By Don Behm
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published March 10, 2008
Pain relievers, antibiotics and other prescription drugs, caffeine and a chemical created inside the bodies of smokers are among the chemicals found in recent tests of Milwaukee's sewage and water from the city's harbor and Lake Michigan.
Tests in 2007 of lake water collected more than a mile offshore found detectable amounts of prescription medications, as well as carbadox - an antibiotic and growth-promoting drug added to swine feed - caffeine and cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine, said Lon Couillard, water quality manager for the Milwaukee Water Works.
The prescription drugs found in lake water included the pain reliever diclofenac, the antibiotic oleandomycin and gemfibrozil, a cholesterol medication.
Chemicals in the water are destroyed by ozone mixed with the lake water at the beginning of the drinking water treatment process, and consumers are not exposed to them, said Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis. There were two exceptions last year, and only one of the compounds is a pharmaceutical.
Tests of treated drinking water in the plants found 2 parts per trillion of cotinine and 0.5 parts per trillion of lincomysin, an antibiotic. Lincomysin was not detected in lake water coming into the two treatment plants, however, Lewis said.
Neither chemical was found in separate tests of water flowing through pipes to homes and businesses in the regional distribution system.
"Milwaukee tap water is clear of pharmaceuticals," Lewis said.
The Water Works voluntarily tests water twice a year for 73 pharmaceuticals, though none of the tests is required by federal or state regulators.
Rebecca Klaper, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes WATER Institute, tested for pharmaceuticals in the sewage piped to the Jones Island plant and the treated wastewater pouring into the harbor.
Among the substances she found entering and exiting the treatment plant are the antibiotic tetracycline, the common pain reliever acetaminophen, and carbamazepine, a drug used to control epileptic seizures.
Even after dilution of the treated wastewater in the harbor, Klaper found the antibiotic in the open water.
Several years ago, researchers started finding male fish carrying eggs and displaying other female characteristics. All lived downstream of municipal sewage treatment plants, said Gerald Ankley, a research toxicologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Duluth, Minn.
This feminization of male fish has been linked to detectable levels of synthetic hormones from birth control and other prescription drugs, Ankley said.
The local studies add to a growing body of evidence nationwide of pharmaceutical drugs and other chemicals accumulating in surface waters, prompting warnings of possible damage to the health and reproduction of fish, said Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.
"That's exactly why we're holding a medicine collection day again this year," Shafer said. "We know sewage treatment plants are not designed to remove all of these compounds. We are taking steps to remove unused medications before they reach Lake Michigan."
This year, for the first time, Ozaukee, Washington and Racine counties will join Milwaukee County in collecting unused and unwanted prescription drugs, over the counter and pet medications on April 19. For information, go to the district's Web site, www.mmsd.com.
The one-day medicine collections can accept prescription drugs that are controlled substances. Those pharmaceuticals will be taken by local law enforcement officers. Illegal drugs will not be accepted.
The number of such collections is increasing each year in Wisconsin, said Steve Brachman, a waste reduction specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Waukesha County is planning a "mail back" prescription return program scheduled to begin in April, Brachman said.
Shafer's message to metropolitan Milwaukee residents is "never flush or pour unused medicine down the drain."
Much of the pharmaceuticals and personal care products flowing into the nation's sewage treatment plants has passed through consumers, is then excreted and flushed away, said Susan Glassmeyer, a research chemist with EPA's Office of Research and Development in Cincinnati.
Even so, Glassmeyer supports collection programs as an effective way of preventing the unnecessary release of additional chemicals to the environment.
"Collections take a piece out of this problem," Glassmeyer said.