Industry Reacts to Report on Pharmaceuticals in Water

May 1, 2008
Associated Press articles about trace levels of pharmaceuticals found in drinking water sparked controversy in Washington during March.

by Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

Associated Press articles about trace levels of pharmaceuticals found in drinking water sparked controversy in Washington during March.

AP reported that tests of treated drinking water supplies for 24 major metropolitan areas detected at least one pharmaceutical. Both prescription and non-prescription drugs were detected.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works said one of its subcommittees would hold a hearing on the issue during April.

Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), said, “Water professionals have been researching the occurrence of personal care products and pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water supplies for more than 30 years.

“Today’s advanced technology has allowed scientists to detect more substances -- at lower levels -- than ever before. To date, however, research … has not demonstrated an impact on human health from pharmaceuticals in drinking water at the trace levels at which they have been found.”

Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), said, “The water sector has not waited for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to address pharmaceuticals found in water. Our attention to this issue is demonstrated by the ongoing work of water research organizations and through proactive monitoring carried out by water utilities. The media has been proactive, too, by reporting on this subject for a decade or more.”

AMWA urged EPA to give a high priority to research on treatment technologies. It said EPA and FDA must determine if trace amounts of pharmaceuticals have short- or long-term effects on human health or the environment.

The association said animal feeding and production operations should reduce their releases of antibiotics and steroids into water supplies and the federal government should offer a national program for the safe disposal of unused human prescriptions.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), which represents nearly 300 municipal wastewater treatment plants, agreed that better disposal options are needed.

“While the presence of these compounds in our waterways is not new, sophisticated new technologies have been developed that can detect concentrations measured at levels of parts per billion or parts per trillion. As the AP notes, these concentrations do not pose a threat to human health,” the group said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chairman of the Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality Subcommittee, was planning an April hearing “to ensure the EPA and Congress take the steps necessary to protect our residents and clean up our water supply.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), senior Republican on the full environment committee, urged EPA to name a task force to seek better protection from pharmaceuticals in water supplies.

Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said his agency has “significantly increased our efforts to analyze the health effects of contaminants at low levels, when they occur in water, and how to best remove them from wastewater and drinking water. We are carrying out national studies and surveys to inform our next steps. We are reviewing emerging contaminants for regulation as well as partnering with government agencies and the private sector.”

The National Science Foundation’s Drinking Water Treatment Unit Certification Program was establishing a task force to research pharmaceuticals in water.

The Water Quality Association said a late-March survey found that 67% of respondents were concerned about the presence of pharmaceuticals in their drinking water. More than half of respondents were planning to buy home filtration devices in the future.

Water Utilities Included In Anti-Terrorism Measure

The House Committee on Homeland Security has reported a bill that includes, for the first time, water and wastewater utilities in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chemical facility anti-terrorism (CFAT) program.

Water groups won a major concession during the markups. The committee denied DHS authority to order water and wastewater systems to convert to “inherently safer technology” (IST) unless the federal government gives them funds to assist the conversions. IST encompasses methods that use less dangerous chemicals and processes but at potentially higher costs.

The bill requires facilities to analyze “methods to reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack” and authorizes $225 million over three years to help defray conversion costs. It also allows states to enact laws that are more stringent than the federal program.

The measure applies the CFAT program to all facilities that store more than a threshold quantity of any DHS-listed chemical of concern, including chlorine gas in excess of 500 pounds. Facilities would have to submit a vulnerability assessment and a security plan to DHS, and implement them if approved.

The bill also allows DHS to accept vulnerability assessments and emergency response plans that water systems have completed for EPA under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.

After the Homeland Security Committee reported the bill, House leaders referred it to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over chemicals and hazardous substances.

Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), chairman of the latter panel’s Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, has drafted a less stringent bill that authorizes the current chemical security program and exempts drinking water and wastewater treatment plants from it.

Meanwhile, James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, requested co-jurisdiction over the Homeland Security panel’s bill. His committee oversees legislation regarding the Clean Water Act and related water pollution control issues.

To show the legislation was not needed, water groups released a survey of 1,200 drinking water and 950 wastewater treatment utilities. The survey found 95% of the respondents had evaluated their disinfection methods in light of public health, environmental, and security concerns, and 94% had emergency response plans in place.

EPA Seeks Comments On Climate Change Strategy

EPA was seeking public comment on a strategy that reacts to the potential effects of climate change on clean water, drinking water, and ocean protection programs.

The plan focuses on actions designed to help managers adapt water programs in response to a changing climate, strengthen links between climate research and water programs, and improve education for water program professionals on potential climate change impacts.

The strategy also identifies ways water programs can help mitigate greenhouse gases. Some of the potential impacts of climate change on water resources reviewed in the strategy include increases in certain water pollution problems, changes in availability of drinking water supplies, and collective impacts on coastal areas.

Administrator Grumbles said the draft “proposes 46 specific actions that the National Water Program will take to respond appropriately to climate change in topic areas including adaptation, research, mitigation, and education.” He said the draft only included actions that can be initiated in fiscal years 2008 or 2009 with an assumption of level funding.

Eight large water utilities recently formed a coalition to study the long-term challenge that climate change poses to delivering high-quality drinking water. (See April column.)

In other Washington developments:

– Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing a prototype of a national, internet-based, geospatial database of underground water pipes. The pilot project, which has funding from EPA and NSF, is working with data from the cities of Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

– The House of Representatives has approved the Water Quality Investment Act, which would provide $1.7 billion for municipalities to fix aging clean water infrastructure and reduce sewer overflows. The bill now goes to the Senate.

– EPA has proposed standards for drinking water on aircraft. It said the rule would tailor existing health-based drinking water regulations to the unique characteristics of aircraft public water systems. In 2004, EPA found total coliform bacteria in 15% of aircraft it tested.

– EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have issued a rule on how property owners can provide compensatory mitigation for unavoidable impacts to the wetlands and streams. They said the rule would improve the consistency, predictability and ecological success of mitigation projects.

– The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government of Kentucky will spend more than $290 million on sewer systems improvements, eliminate overflows of untreated raw sewage, and reduce pollution in storm water. In a consent agreement with federal agencies, the utility also will pay a $425,000 civil penalty and implement two federal and two state environmental projects valued at $2.73 million.

– The Beverage Marketing Corp. has reported that U.S. bottled water sales rose 6.9% in 2007 to 8.8 billion gallons. Per capita consumption of 29.3 gallons was up from 27.6 gallons in 2006. Wholesale sales rose 7.8% to $11.7 billion.

– Underwriters Laboratories (UL) announced a certification program to verify that bottled water meets FDA and International Bottled Water Association requirements. UL will audit bottling plants as part of the certification process.

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