Prozac and painkillers found in tap water

Drinking water contains traces of nine drugs, new study finds
Sarah Staples
CanWest News Service – November 13, 2004

The federal government’s first study of pharmaceuticals in drinking water will confirm traces of common painkillers, anti-cholesterol drugs and the antidepressant Prozac are ending up in the treated water that Canadians drink, CanWest News Service has learned.

A study by researchers from the National Water Research Institute for Health and Environment Canada, designed to gauge how efficiently plants removed traces of drugs from drinking water, found nine different drugs in water samples taken near 20 drinking water treatment plants across southern Ontario.

The drugs were mainly from a class known as “acidic pharmaceuticals,” and included the painkillers ibuprofen and neproxin, and gemfibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering medication. Concentrations were in the parts per trillion — comparable to one cent in $10 billion. “Barely detectable” levels of Prozac were also found.

The worst contamination came from treatment plants located near rivers or downstream from sewage treatment plants, as opposed to those plants sourcing water from lakes or groundwater.

The study has been submitted to the British scientific journal Water Research and is expected to be published sometime in the New Year.

While the amounts are well below prescription doses, experts from the NWRI say confirmation of even scant levels of a burgeoning assortment of drugs in Canada’s drinking water is a troubling find warranting further investigation.

“It’s kind of a brand new ball game and we don’t know enough,” said Jim Maguire, director of the institute’s aquatic ecosystem protection research branch.

Residues of hormones are well known to disrupt the reproductive abilities of amphibians and fish. There is also suspicion that antibiotic residues working their way up the food chain may promote resistance to the drugs, while many other medications could harm fetuses, and people who are ill or infirm.

The effects of pesticides are better understood and regulated in Canada than personal care products, such as lotions and cosmetics, or prescription pharmaceuticals, said Maguire.

“You need to know how long lasting [the contamination is], and if it’s being continually reintroduced — but there’s no country in the world that has enough information,” he said. “We’re kind of like where we were 25 years ago with PCBs and dioxides.”

The government study is the first official acknowledgement of long-standing suspicions voiced by Canada’s water-quality experts.

Transcripts obtained by CanWest News Service of a Health Canada-sponsored international workshop in 2002 show government chemists voicing serious concern over the possible negative effects of trace pharmaceuticals, at a time when U.S. and European studies were starting to reveal antibiotics and chemotherapeutics, drugs for epilepsy and depression, anti-inflammatory drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances such as musk, and hormones in treated sewage runoff and tap water.

Informal private testing carried out last year on behalf of media outlets revealed residues of gemfibrozil and the anticonvulsant drug carbamazepine in tap water from towns and cities across Canada.

The federal government isn’t testing for the full range of drugs that could be in Canada’s potable water supply, preferring initially to limit its search to “acidic” drugs because they are easiest to spot using existing pesticide analysis techniques, said Kent Burnison, an NWRI microbiologist who co-wrote the study.

Ontario’s water was surveyed not because of any special concern over its safety, but because samples had to be taken near NWRI’s laboratory to preserve their integrity, he said.

The United States and Europe — which acknowledged pharmaceutical accumulation several years before Canada began studying the phenomenon — have already begun releasing the first disturbing results of experiments to understand the impact of drugs in the water on fish and wildlife.

In October, for example, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Environmental Protection, revealed 42 to 79 per cent of the male smallmouth bass from a section of the Potomac River known to harbour nicotine-related chemicals and caffeine traces have started producing eggs.

Studies in Colorado waterways recently encountered more examples of “intersex” males, as well as female fish that are having trouble reproducing.

The working hypothesis is that leftover estrogen from chicken droppings or human hormones, not traditional pollutants from agriculture or mining, are disrupting the fish’s reproduction.

In Europe and Japan, scientists are turning their attention to devising ways of cleaning drinking water using new, hypersensitive nano-scale filtration materials.

Burnison’s lab is in the midst of a multi-year study of the environmental impacts of the drugs found so far in Canada’s drinking water.

With a growing and aging population of baby boomers who will rely increasingly on medication, water experts fear the problem may only get worse.

“You may prove that individual pharmaceuticals aren’t doing that much [to the environment], but when you’ve got a 100 or more compounds together, what is the synergistic effect?” he said.

“Is it one plus one equals two, or does it equal three and four?”


Detectable levels of many common drugs have been found in Canadian drinking water.

– Analgesics ibuprofen and neproxin.

– Antidepressant Prozac.

– Anti-cholesterol medication gemfibrozil.

– Anticonvulsant drug carbamazepine.

– Traces of nicotine, caffeine and estrogen are detectable in some wildlife.

Ran with fact box “FOUND IN THE WATER”, which has been appended to the end of the story.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Airlines Agree to Drinking Water Tests

White House – AP Cabinet & State
By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – A dozen airlines will monitor and flush out their fleets’ water systems under a costly agreement with the government after tests found coliform bacteria in the drinking water of one in every eight planes tested.

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would perform random tests on 169 domestic and international passenger aircraft at 14 airports throughout the United States and publish the results by the end of the year.

If bacteria are discovered, the airliners would have to be disinfected within 24 hours unless the agency granted an extension because the plane involved was outside the United States. In the meantime, passengers would find signs posted in the lavatories and galleys of affected aircraft.

Two months ago, EPA tested drinking water aboard 158 randomly selected domestic and international passenger aircraft and found that 12.6 percent had drinking water that did not meet federal safety standards.

Twenty of the tested planes — small commuter aircraft to jumbo jets — returned positive results for total coliform bacteria, which signaled the possible presence of other harmful organisms. Two planes tested positive for E. coli bacteria, which can cause gastrointestinal illness.

The EPA advises passengers with immune system problems to avoid drinking water from airplane galleys or lavatories.

The airlines said they are confident their drinking water is safe, and they believe the number of airplanes that failed the agency’s safe water test is closer to one in 20.

In a statement, the Air Transport Association, which represented the airlines in Tuesday’s agreement, said, “Our members wanted to address once and for all questions the EPA raised about airline drinking water.” Still, the association said, the airlines believe “aircraft drinking water is just as safe as the municipal water systems that supply it.”

The EPA summer tests showed that 87.4 percent of the planes tested had water that met federal standards, slightly below the 90 percent compliance among municipal drinking water systems in the United States.

The new agreement could be costly to the industry, in part because some planes will have to be flown to airports capable of the flushing and testing required.

The agreement with major carriers require the airlines to analyze possible sources of contamination that exist outside aircraft and to tell the government how they get drinking water from foreign public water suppliers not regulated by EPA.

Under the agreement:

_Airlines must disinfect and flush each airplane’s potable water system quarterly.

_Airlines must flush out trucks, carts and hoses that carry the water monthly.

_Airlines must notify EPA immediately when an airplane tests positive for coliform bacteria; EPA will ensure the problem is corrected.

_EPA will meet with the airlines quarterly over the next year to determine whether changes in the process are needed.

_After the first year, the airlines and EPA will meet for 30 days to decide on the process for the next year.

_Airlines must notify the public or discontinue water service on aircraft that return coliform-positive test results. The airlines must disinfect airplanes within 24 hours of positive test results, or longer if an extension is granted because the plane is outside the country.

Signing agreements with EPA were Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines, American Airlines, America West, ATA Airlines, Continental Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Midwest Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and U.S. Airways.

Separate agreements are being negotiated with Delta and Southwest airlines, EPA officials said.

While the 14 airlines constitute the majority of U.S. airlines, the agency said it also is working with smaller, regional and charter aircraft carriers to improve drinking water quality.

Stuart Wilde (
©2004 Stuart Wilde. All rights reserved.

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