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Home > Feature Articles > Municipality Strategies for Sustainable Community Best Practices

Pharmaceutical Residues in Water Supply - Position Statement

Effluents from centralized sewage treatment plants are the principal source pharmaceutical residues in water resources

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Pharmceuticals Pollution Problem in Community Water Supplies

The following position paper explains the basic problems of the recently discovered pharmceuticals pollution problem in community water supplies. It is presented here as an overview of the situation and sources of this pollution in water supplies across the United States.

Position Statement Regarding Pharmaceutical Residues in Water Resources

March 16, 2008 Draft
By Dennis McQuillan, State of New Mexico (NMENV)

Prescription medicines and breakdown by-products have been detected at very low concentrations in water resources at many locations in the Unites States and elsewhere. These pharmaceutical residues originate from the excretions of persons taking medication, and from the disposal of unused drugs into the sewer. Conventional technologies used in both centralized and decentralized wastewater treatment systems do not completely remove pharmaceutical residues which are then released, via treated effluent, to the environment. Drug residues have been frequently detected in rivers and lakes that receive sewage effluent, and in drinking water systems supplied by those surface waters. Drug residues also have been detected in ground water aquifers.

The human health and ecological significance of pharmaceutical residues in water resources is the subject of on-going studies. To date, drug residues in drinking water have not been shown to adversely impact human health. There is concern, however, that antibiotics in surface water are playing a role in the ability of disease-causing pathogens to develop resistance to the drugs used to fight them. Additionally, numerous studies provide compelling evidence that hormonal drugs in surface water are causing adverse impacts to some fish populations.

Centralized Wastewater Collection Effluents Dump Pharmaceutical Residues in Water Resources

Centralized wastewater collection, treatment and disposal systems serve about 75% of the households in America. Wastewater is collected over large areas and delivered to centralized treatment plants.

These sewage plants discharge large amounts of pharmaceutical laden effluent to the environment, and many discharge effluent to rivers that are used downstream as a source of drinking water.

Multiple studies have shown that effluents from centralized sewage treatment plants are the principal source pharmaceutical residues in water resources in the United States.

Decentralized Wastewater System Options

Decentralized wastewater systems serve about 25% of the households in America. Wastewater is collected from small areas, often from a single dwelling, treated on-site or in close proximity, and typically dispersed into the soil. Decentralized systems release small amounts of pharmaceutical laden wastewater to the environment at numerous and widespread locations. Multiple studies have shown that pharmaceutical residues dispersed into the soil are attenuated by natural geologic processes, and do not migrate long distances underground. In contrast, pharmaceuticals released to surface water typically migrate longer distances prior to being attenuated by natural processes. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical detections attributable to decentralized systems are significantly less numerous than those for centralized systems.

The traditional paradigm for sanitary engineering and community planning has been that decentralized wastewater systems are less desirable than centralized infrastructure. Consequently, decentralized options have not always been thoroughly evaluated for new residential developments, and for improvements to wastewater infrastructure in existing communities. In many cases, properly designed and operated decentralized wastewater systems can provide equal or better protection of public health and water quality than centralized infrastructure, as exemplified by the pharmaceuticals issue. Decentralized systems also can be substantially more cost effective to both homeowners and to government agencies that administer public funds for wastewater projects.

Decentralized Wastewater Infrastructure and Aquifer Depletion

Another timely and significant example of how decentralized wastewater infrastructure can be more advantageous than centralized systems is with regard to depletion of ground water aquifers and the concurrent rise in ocean levels. Aquifers in many areas are being heavily pumped as a source of drinking water. Many communities use this water only once and then send it to a centralized sewer system that discharges effluent into a river that flows into an ocean. The process of transferring water from aquifers to the ocean is resulting in water table declines, which are compounded by droughts and water shortages in some areas, and is believed to be responsible for a small but significant contribution to rising ocean levels worldwide. Dispersal of treated effluent into the soil through decentralized wastewater systems allows some of the water to be returned to the aquifer from which it was pumped rather than being sent to the ocean. We believe that greater reuse of treated wastewater originating from both centralized and decentralized systems is needed.

Public Funding of Wastewater Infrastructures

Public funds have been used for decades to construct and improve centralized wastewater infrastructure. The 25% of Americans who currently use decentralized infrastructure, however, have not similarly benefited from publicly funded wastewater construction programs. This inequity is particularly inappropriate in cases where decentralized wastewater infrastructure has engineering, economic, public health or ecological advantages over centralized systems.

For these and other reasons, the traditional paradigm regarding decentralized wastewater systems has been proven to be invalid. We applaud the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for recently launching an initiative to support decentralized wastewater infrastructure options, and we urge Congress to expand EPA funding for this initiative.

We also urge Congress to support on-going research by EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) into the occurrence, migration, fate and ecological significance of pharmaceutical residues in water resources. We request that EPA and the Centers for Disease Control be directed, and appropriately funded, to evaluate the human health significance of pharmaceutical residues in water resources.

SOURCE:
Dennis McQuillan
State of New Mexico
state.nm.us



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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