Monday, April 13, 2009

PPCP Contamination of our Water Supply

It’s not exactly breaking news, but it is still worth talking about the growing realization among scientists that our water supply (and by that I mean not just the water coming out of the tap, but also streams, lakes and even bottled water) is contaminated by low levels of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (known as “PPCP’s”). Take a look at this AP report which first brought this issue to the public’s attention.

As it turns out, every time we pop pills (something we do a lot more these days) our bodies do not metabolize 100% of the medication. This is true whether it is over-the-counter ibuprofen or prescription birth control pills. The portion that is not metabolized ends up down the toilet. Similarly, all the makeup, suntan lotion, moisturizer etc. on our skin ends up in waste water after we wash – or in our lakes, rivers and streams after we swim. This is compounded by the apparently widespread direct disposal of unused medications down the toilet and into landfills. For an interesting diagram of some of the ways PPCP’s enter our environment take a look here (thanks to the MassDEP).

While it should come as no surprise that we flush all sorts of things into our waste water, what has caused a certain amount of surprise and consternation among scientists is that PPCP’s appear to survive in the environment at very low levels (or are replenished at a rate equal to or greater than the rate at which they break down), and they have been detected just about everywhere. For a more technical discussion of the issue, see here.

Now, it is important to note that the level of contamination is far below therapeutic dosages. The concern remains however 1) that we don’t understand the possible effects of long term exposure to these chemicals, either individually or in combination; and 2) that we do not seem to have a good handle on how to get PPCP’s out of our water if they are causing a problem.

This issue has not gone unnoticed at the EPA (see here) or at various State DEP’s (e.g. here). The EPA is currently sponsoring a number of research projects, some of which will be completed this year. It appears that the early targets of the EPA’s research efforts are health care facilities.

Health care facilities may not seem like an obvious target, but the EPA has thus far identified more than 50,000 facilities in the US that the EPA believes may dispose of large quantities of unused pharmaceuticals. The term “health care facility” here includes not just hospitals, but also nursing care facilities, retirement communities, and residential facilities for the mentally handicapped. Surprisingly, there are no comprehensive federal regulations dealing with disposal methods for pharmaceuticals. For pharmaceuticals which fall under the Controlled Substances Act, disposal methods are mandated, but permit the health care facility to destroy unused meds by flushing them down the drain. State and local regulations are a patchwork.

Whether or not there is a human physiological impact from PPCP’s, the early results suggest that there is at least some environmental impact. That may well lead to new regulations to control PPCP levels in our drinking water and environment. While some of those regulations will undoubtedly impact the way we dispose of these products, it is also likely that they will require at least some remediation of water that is already contaminated.

There is also the obvious public relations aspect of the problem as evidenced by the tone of the AP article mentioned at the beginning of this post. If PPCP’s are found to have an impact on human health – and possibly even if they don’t – it is not difficult to imagine that the public will demand water that has been filtered for these compounds. This presents an interesting opportunity for those in the water industry who can develop the necessary technology to reliably filter these chemicals out of our water.


  1. I find your information quite topical as well as interesting, but I need to inquire, so what...? As you note PPCP in our water is not a new discovery and yet Americans (and while I would rather not I must include moi) remain totally oblivious to taking any "action" to address this one topic. Why...? While I am and have been in the water and wastewater industry in Arizona for more than 30 years, the conversation today is what it was 30 years ago, we have not honestly made any significant head way to honestly addressing and/or correcting the myriad of water dilemmas we have created. What might be positive steps Americans can take to begin to comprehend the impact our daily action has on all aspects of our air and water...? Or are "we" truly that cavalier we don't care...?

  2. I agree completely. As to the "so what", I can only say that I hope keeping the discussion alive will lead to greater public awareness and ultimately corrective action.

    I also believe that the best hope for positive action is to align, as much as possible, the varying interests of the water industry, government and environmentalists. That requires changing the discussion from "we need to clean up our water" to "here is an interesting opportunity for a company with the right technology."

    I believe that is the ultimate lesson of the current "green revolution". Use our society's ingrained - and highly effective - capitalist instinct to work for the environment. That will require society as whole to decide that this is an important issue - and government to provide the necessary legal incentives to make environmentalism profitable for businesses.

  3. Oh... and thanks for the comment and compliment!