Congress Reacts to Drug Residues & Climate Change

May 1, 2008
The EPA was in the hotseat at recent U.S. Senate hearings on pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

by Patrick Crow

The EPA was in the hotseat at recent U.S. Senate hearings on pharmaceuticals in drinking water. An Environment & Public Works subcommittee held the inquiry in response to Associated Press articles about trace levels of prescription and non-prescription drugs found in water of 24 major metropolitan areas.

Water groups said pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water aren’t new, but advanced technologies allow detection of more substances at lower levels than before – adding that trace levels of drugs in drinking water haven’t been found to impact human health. Still, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), committee chair, noted many pharmaceuticals are designed to work at very low levels and may have a more concentrated impact on pregnant women and children.

“EPA has failed to require needed testing to determine effects of these chemicals at low levels,” Boxer said. “In 1996, Congress told EPA in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Food Quality Protection Act to develop a program to identify and address chemicals that harm the natural balance of hormones in our body, called endocrine disrupting chemicals.

“Yet, EPA is now nearly six years behind the schedule established in a court settlement to list the endocrine disrupting chemicals it will test. And EPA still has not even established all the tests needed to detect these chemicals, much less evaluated them using those tests.”

Testifying for the AWWA, Shane Snyder, research and development project manager for Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the issue is the effect of drugs in water – not their concentrations. “I can tell you with absolute certainty, if we regulate contaminants based upon detection rather than health effects, we’re embarking on a futile journey without end,” he said, adding that the highest concentration detected in U.S. drinking waters is about 5 million times lower than one would take in a medical dose. Snyder said EPA should review pharmaceutical compounds in water under its Contaminant Candidate List process that uses a science-driven process to ensure regulations are necessary, reasonable and protect public health.

Global shortages & reuse

Two Department of Energy researchers, Mike Hightower and Suzanne Pierce, of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Sandia National Laboratories, in an article in Nature magazine, predict over half the nations in the world will face freshwater stress or shortages by 2025 and 75% of the world’s population could face freshwater scarcity by 2050.

“This growing international water crisis is forcing governments to rethink how they value and use and manage water, especially because economic development hinges on water availability,” they said. “Drinking water supplies, agriculture, energy production and generation, mining and industry all require large quantities of water. In the future, these sectors will be competing for increasingly limited freshwater resources, making water supply availability a major economic driver in the 21st century.”

Freshwater withdrawals already exceed precipitation in many parts of the U.S., with the worst shortfalls often in areas with the fastest population growth, particularly the Southwest, they said. Innovative methods will be needed to treat nontraditional water sources such as wastewater, brackish groundwater, seawater and extracted mine water. They added that U.S. wastewater reuse is growing by 15% per year.

EPA has drafted a strategy that reacts to the potential effects of climate change on clean water, drinking water and ocean protection programs (see Eight large water utilities also formed a coalition, the Water Utility Climate Alliance, to study the long-term challenge global warming poses to delivering high-quality drinking water.

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. Now a Houston, TX-based freelance writer, he has reported on water issues for over 10 years.

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