EPA Continues Study of Drugs in Drinking Water

Washington The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking comment on an Information Collection Request that will be used in a detailed study of unused pharmaceutical disposal methods by hospitals, long-term care facilities, hospices and veterinary hospitals. EPA is seeking more information on the practices of the health care industry to inform future potential regulatory actions, and identify

Washington — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking comment on an “Information Collection Request” that will be used in a detailed study of unused pharmaceutical disposal methods by hospitals, long-term care facilities, hospices and veterinary hospitals. EPA is seeking more information on the practices of the health care industry to inform future potential regulatory actions, and identify best management and proper disposal practices. This is one of several actions the agency is taking to strengthen its understanding of disposal practices and potential risks from pharmaceuticals in water.

“The agency's work to increase industry stewardship and scientific understanding of pharmaceuticals in water continues,” said Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA's assistant administrator for water. “By reaching out to the National Academy of Sciences and requesting information from the health care industry,EPA is taking important steps to enhance its efforts.”

When the Associated Press broke the story last winter of its investigation of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, reaction in the industry was mixed (April, p. 1)

The American Water Works Association has researched the issue of pharmaceuticals in America's drinking for a number of years and has only found trace levels of the substances, measured in parts per trillion, said Kylah Hedding, public affairs manager for AWWA.

“When we did the math, a part per trillion was like a teaspoon of salt in a thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools,” she said. “They're very small amounts. There have been no human health effects that have been found, and the water community is always paying close attention to that sort of research and doing research on our own as well.”

Joseph Harrison, technical director for the Water Quality Association, which represents manufacturers of water filtration equipment, is not quite as confident that consistent levels of pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies have zero effect.

“I don't think we know factually how much real risk there is, but perception-wise, I think we should be really concerned. Who wants to be consuming those kinds of things?” he said.

The EPA is also commissioning the National Academy of Sciences to provide scientific advice on the potential risk to human health from low levels of pharmaceutical residues in drinking water. The National Academy of Sciences will convene a workshop of scientific experts Dec. 11-12, to advise the agency on methods for screening and prioritizing pharmaceuticals to determine potential risk.

Other actions the agency is taking include: expanding a recent fish tissue pilot study to sample nationally to determine whether residues from pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) may be present in fish and waterways; developing a methodology to establish water quality criteria to protect aquatic life; and conducting studies to examine the potential occurrence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in sewage sludge and wastewater. To facilitate these efforts, the agency has developed state-of-the-art analytical methods capable of detecting various pharmaceuticals, steroids and hormones at very low levels.

EPA also is participating in an international effort with the World Health Organization to study appropriate risk assessment methods for pharmaceuticals as environmental contaminants. All these actions reflect advice the agency sought from a broad range of stakeholders including environmental and public health groups, drinking water and wastewater utilities, state water and public health agencies, and the agricultural community.

EPA's four-pronged approach for pharmaceuticals and personal care products in water is aimed at strengthening scientific knowledge; improving public understanding; building partnerships for stewardship; and taking regulatory action when appropriate.

Additional information on EPA's research and response to pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment is available at www.epa.gov/waterscience/ppcp/

Contaminant actions

In a separate action, EPA has made a final determination not to regulate 11 contaminants on the second drinking water contaminant candidate list (CCL 2). The agency has concluded that the contaminants do not occur nationally in public water systems, or occur at levels below a public health concern. The agency's final regulatory determination is based on extensive review of health effects, occurrence data and public comments.

“Sound science and public health drive EPA's decisions under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” said Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA's assistant administrator for water. “We will continue to thoroughly review new and emerging contaminants to ensure that citizens and our environment are protected.”

The 11 contaminants include naturally occurring substances, pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals used (or formerly used) in manufacturing. While none of the contaminants were found nationally at levels of public health concern in public water systems, EPA is updating health advisories for seven of the contaminants to provide current health information to local officials for situations where the contaminants may be present.

EPA is updating health advisories for boron; dacthal mono- and di-acid degradates;1,3-dichloropropene (Telone); 2,4-dinitrotoluene, and 2,6-dinitrotoluene; and 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane. EPA has determined that updated or new health advisories are not needed for 1-dichloro-2,2-bis(p-chlorophenyl) ethylene (DDE); s-ethyl propyl thiocarbamate (EPTC); Fonofos; and Terbacil, because the national monitoring data showed almost no occurrence at levels of public health concern.

A regulatory determination is a formal decision on whether EPA should initiate a rulemaking process to develop a national primary drinking water regulation for a specific contaminant. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, every five years EPA develops a contaminant candidate list, or CCL, and then makes a regulatory determination for at least five contaminants on the list. In 2005, the agency published the second CCL, which listed 51 contaminants. In May 2007, EPA requested public comment on its preliminary regulatory determinations not to regulate 11 of these 51 CCL 2 contaminants.