How safe is our drinking water? Does running a glass of water straight for the tap mean the same thing as a trip to the drug store? Well, not quite. But the reality is, Arizona’s water laws for cities in Active Management Areas (AMA's) are set up in a way which “rewards” cities for putting treated sewage water back into the aquifers, (called re-charging the aquifer). And some organizations, including U. S. Geological Survey are now questioning the practice enough to start doing studies on the matter.
The Associated Press National Investigative Team recently did a 5-month study testing for pharmaceuticals in the nation’s drinking water, which was released to the public last month. The results weren’t good news. Although no water in the quad-city area was tested, one Arizona city, Tucson, was. They had 3 medications in their drinking water, including an antibiotic.
Traditionally the government and non-profit environmental groups haven’t done much testing for medications. They did work towards keeping lead and pesticides out of the water. But there hasn’t been much research on what happens to medications for human, (or animal) consumption once they get into the water supply. While the medications found in the water by the AP Investigative Team were trace amounts, many scientists are concerned because, unlike lead and pesticides, these drugs were designed to work in human bodies.
How did the drugs get into the water? Well, first of all the human body simply doesn’t “process” all the medications they consume so they end up in the wastewater. That’s part of the problem. Sewage water is treated and then in many places, such as Prescott Valley and Chino Valley, put back into the aquifer. Up until now Prescott Valley has not tested for medications in their drinking water.
When asked about their future plans for more testing of the water in Prescott Valley, John Munderloh, the city’s Water Resource Manager said in an email, “Since the EPA has provided no evidence that demonstrates potential harm to consumers from these organic compounds; and since testing is costly to our ratepayers, we have not tested for unregulated trace organic compounds. However, in light of public concern over the issue, we do plan to conduct a full spectrum test for Pharmaceuticals excluding the Fragrance/Odor threshold analysis. This will cost approximately $2000.00/sample location. We plan to sample from the water tanks within the next month to six weeks and receive results by summer.”
Doris Cellarius, from the Sierra Club follows various water issues in the area and says that at this time there is no evidence of pharmaceuticals in Chino Valley’s water supply. She further states, “Sewage effluent put into the ground requires an aquifer protection permit. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) law directs any entity to have both an aquifer protection permit (APP) issued through Environmental Protection Agency by the (ADEQ) and an underground storage facility permit (USF) issued through the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and Chino Valley has both permits per the statutes and federal code requirements. Chino Valley has a water quality sampling plan that was developed as continuous water quality monitoring for both permits, and they submit those results on a regular interval as do the other entities within our region that recharge effluent. The list of water quality indicators required to be sampled is quite exhaustive.”
Cellarius also states that even though the tests for Chino Valley’s water are fine right now, the “pharmaceuticals occur at very tiny, but biologically active amounts.” Chino Valley’s website has a very detailed diagram of their wastewater treatment process. They also state on the site that they believe, “Increasing aquifer recharge will be critical to helping the Prescott AMA achieve its safe-yield goal.”
Effluent water, which is put back into aquifers, has become known as “Toilet to Tap” water. It has become a hot issue in Tucson, even before antibiotics were found in their drinking water. In a March 17, 2008 article in the Arizona Daily Star, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is quoted as saying that “using "recycled" wastewater as part of the drinking-water supply needs to be studied as part of the region's long-term future.” It continues to be a fierce debate.
So, aside from following area water politics, what can the average citizen do to help keep pharmaceutics out of wastewater, which may end up in groundwater or aquifers? Start with forgetting what you were told 20 years ago. For many years healthcare professionals told their clients to just flush their unused or expire medications. That practice probably did a lot to contribute to what the AP investigators discovered. But flushing or using the garbage disposal to get rid of old medications is not recommended anymore. John Phillips, of Goodwin Street Pharmacy says when his clients ask him what to do with their unused meds he first tells them, “Don’t flush them down the toilet.” He doesn’t feel there is a truly effective way to handle old medications but says that he advises clients to accumulate their meds and each year put them in a zip lock bag with some cat litter and water and then throw them in the trash. This keeps the meds from being used illegally. He also states that if a patient is taking their medications according to directions they usually won’t have any left. Especially antibiotics. Yet antibiotics are what showed up in Tucson’s drinking water.
Costco Pharmacy Manager Larry Shoetack says that their clients can bring any unused or expired medications into the store and they will dispose of them. He says that about every 4 months he boxes them up and mails them to a company called Medturn for proper processing. He says people bring in things from their relatives who have passed away, or sometimes things from mail order drug companies. He’s happy to dispose of them safely.
The U.S. Government, like Goodwin Street Pharmacy, tells consumers to use the kitty litter process or to put them into used coffee grounds (see movie here) for disposing of drugs, or take the medications out of their original containers and throw them in the trash. They also advise finding a pharmaceutical take-back program such as Costco’s. Their website has a list of drugs that the FDA says should be flushed instead of thrown in the trash.