Still safe? While pharmaceutical byproducts in drinking water are a concern of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, City officials say levels in Evanston water are negligible.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes reports that recent testing of Lake Michigan water has found low levels of pharmaceutical by-products in the water and says these findings raise concerns about the potential health threats to people and wildlife getting drinking water from the Great Lakes. However, Evanston officials say tap water here remains safe.

The Alliance report states, “Low levels of cotinine – a nicotine byproduct, and the cholesterol-modifying drug gemfibrozil are among the pharmaceutical compounds scientists have found in Lake Michigan water to date. … Though many experts say the levels are too low to show immediate effects on human health, scientists acknowledge they know little about the long-term effects of these drugs on people nor how they might degrade or interact with other chemicals in the water.”

“Broader use of pharmaceuticals and growing knowledge of the health effects from their chemical byproducts make drug pollution an emerging concern,” said Lyman Welch, water quality program manager for the Alliance and lead author of the report. “As we learn more about what dangers these drugs pose, we have to be ready to take precautionary steps to limit the amount that passes into the Great Lakes every day.”

Evanston officials told the RoundTable they do not believe Evanston tap water is contaminated by those drugs. They test the water continually and say they intend to comply with any additional regulations.

In May 2008 and August 2009, the Evanston Water Utility (the water plan) analyzed its water to determine which products were present and at what levels, said Kevin Lookis, assistant superintendent for watr production for Evanston. He said samples were collected from both tap water (water that has gone through the treatment process) and untreated Lake Michigan water.

Mr. Lookis said the City participates in the data collection for the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR). The water department will remain compliant with any new regulations that may be put in place in the coming years, he says.

The compounds identified in the Alliance’s report were detected at levels less than one ppb (parts per billion) in Evanston water, according to the City’s website.

The City’s website offers the following example to put the levels of the compounds into perspective for Evanston. Based on the level of detection in Evanston’s tap water for Gemfibrozil, a lipid- and cholesterol-modifying medicine with a recommended dosage of 600 mg per day, a person would have to drink 64 ounces of water per day for 16,000 years to achieve a single dosage. The City’s report and a list of all the compounds tested and those detected can be found at http://www.cityofevanston.org/pdf/PPCP.pdf

Drugs in the Water

The presence of pharmaceutical by-products in the Great Lakes has come to light as water-quality-monitoring technology has become better at detecting lower contaminant levels.

Mr. Welch said since some of the Great Lakes take up to 100 years to flush out pollutants, drugs that enter this freshwater system today will remain there for generations.

The Alliance reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to begin screening to determine whether some chemicals found in drinking water are affecting endocrine systems in people and animals. A new Alliance report calls for more research into the long-term effects of drugs in drinking water and points out the absence of tools available to limit their entrance into the lakes.

Drugs enter waterways through patient excretions and/or from being thrown into the garbage or flushed down the toilet. Other means of entry are treatment plant and septic system effluent, runoff from uncontrolled landfills, industrial discharges, commercial animal feeding operations and manure applications.

The Alliance report says sewage treatment plants, which are not designed to remove such pollutants, and current laws are both ill-suited to address this emerging problem. Further, according to the Alliance report, attempts to collect and dispose of unwanted medications safely and easily are hindered by federal drug enforcement and hazardous waste disposal laws that do not take pharmaceutical waste into account.

But new legislation enacted in Illinois prohibits the disposal of unused medications into public wastewater collection systems by certain health care institutions that are regulated by the Illinois Environmental protection Agency (IEPA).

Governor Pat Quinn recently signed the “Safe Pharmaceutical Disposal Act,” which became effective on Jan. 1 and prohibits the disposal of unused medication in solid form into any wastewater collection system. This legislation applies to residential health care facilities, hospitals, nursing homes, hospice programs, mental health providers, home health care agencies and developmental disabilities providers.

For more information on pharmaceutical pollution in the Great lakes, visit www.greatlakes.org/pharmaceuticals.