Household Products are Contaminating the Water
A government analysis shows U.S. waterways are awash
in traces of chemicals used in beauty aids, medications,
cleaners and foods.
Among the substances: caffeine, contraceptives, painkillers,
insect repellent, perfumes and nicotine.
Scientists say that the problem is that these substances
largely escape regulation and defy municipal wastewater
treatment. And the long-term effects of exposure are unclear,
The compounds are sold on supermarket shelves and found
in virtually every medicine cabinet and broom closet,
as well as farms and factories. And they are flushed or
rinsed down the drain every day. But they do not disappear,
Hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey tested
water samples in 30 states for 95 common compounds, an
emerging class of contaminants known as pharmaceutical
and personal care pollutants (PPCPS). The results of the
three-year analysis appear in the March 15 issue of journal
Environmental Science and Technology.
The scientists found that the chemicals persist in the
environment in concentrations as low as one part per billion
or less. The results mirror similar studies of PPCPs in
Europe and Canada.
Yet little is known about PPCPs' potential health and
environmental effects. The use and disposal of 81 of the
95 compounds in the study are entirely unregulated, officials
"Compounds that we use in households or even consume
can persist though wastewater treatment and affect resources
on a pretty broad scale," said Herb Buxton, co-ordinator
of the USGS's toxic substances hydrology program.
For example, many scientists suspect the widespread
use of anti-bacterial agents in human medicines, household
cleaners and veterinary medicines has encouraged the development
of germs that are resistant to antibiotics.
The USGS study found at least 31 antibiotics and anti-bacterial
compounds in water samples. The study also tallied traces
of at least 11 compounds linked to birth control and hormone
Some studies have linked environmental exposure to hormones
to deformed sex organs in wildlife, sex reversal in some
fish and declining fertility in humans, as well as cancers
and other diseases.
Scientists who did not participate in the USGS survey
said PPCPs represent the "next big unknown" in environmental
Exposure to even tiny amounts may result in cumulative
risks, they said, especially when the compounds combine
in unanticipated ways.
"You don't need therapeutic doses of a drug to have
an effect," said Christian Daughton of the Environmental
Protection Agency's exposure research laboratory in Las
Vegas. "Some organisms have potential to suffer multigenerational
exposures. Parts per billion could have profound effects."
Industry and water utility officials said they expect
the EPA to decide in the next few years how to regulate
They said promising new wastewater treatment technologies
can break down many of the chemicals using biological
methods, or even exposure to ultraviolet light.
"We're not ignoring it," said Alan Roberson, regulatory
affairs director for the American Water Works Association
in Washington. "One question is what do you do with the
concentrated form of these chemical compounds if you take
them out of the water."
In 1999-2000, USGS scientists collected samples downstream
from cities, farms and factories. Many of the waterways
contribute to municipal water supplies.
They included the Sacramento River at Freeport, Calif.;
the South Platte River in Denver; the Mississippi River
above Minneapolis/St. Paul; and the Charles River in Boston.
Seven or more chemicals were found in half of the streams
In addition to caffeine, the USGS reported the most
frequently detected compounds were coprostanol and cholesterol,
which are byproducts of digestion. Also found frequently
was DEET, a common insect repellent. Among the medications
found were the blood thinner warfarin, antidepressants
and blood-pressure medicine.