Concern Raised over Pharmaceuticals in Water Americans are increasingly pollution conscious, but not every contaminant comes from a factory or exhaust pipe. Cornelia Dean, New York Times science editor, talks to Tony Cox about discarded pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

Concern Raised over Pharmaceuticals in Water

Concern Raised over Pharmaceuticals in Water

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Americans are increasingly pollution conscious, but not every contaminant comes from a factory or exhaust pipe. Cornelia Dean, New York Times science editor, talks to Tony Cox about discarded pharmaceuticals in drinking water.


From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Maybe you drive a Prius or recycle your plastics. Those are just a couple of ways of being green. But there are also plenty of things you can't control like what's in the water. These days, with all the pills and beauty products we toss or flush, emerging contaminants cycle right back into our homes and we have no idea what will happen on our water or ourselves.

Cornelia Dean just wrote an article on emerging contaminants for The New York Times, where she edits the science section. She's also a lecturer at Harvard University. Dean told NPR's Tony Cox the first phrase to learn is PPCP.

Ms. CORNELIA DEAN (Science Editor, The New York Times): It stands for pharmaceuticals and personal care products. And it's everything from drug residues, and even hormone residues from birth control pills and so on, to things that you wash off yourself in the shower like soap or shampoo or sunscreen, things like that. They get into the water. And scientists who study them call them emerging contaminants, which I thought was kind of an interesting phrase. It's like we know they're out there and they're coming to our attention, but we're not quite sure what the significance of them is.

TONY COX: Well, you know, emerging is the part of that phrase that caught my attention because I was trying to determine just what emerging means. And apparently, from what you have discovered and talk about this, the research does not show at this stage what the danger is, if any, from these emerging contaminants.

Ms. DEAN: That's right. Unlike things like, you know, pesticides or herbicides, that kind of thing that we dump right into the water from a factory or something, those things have been tested a lot and people know exactly how much is going in and when it goes in, and they know to some degree what the effects of these things are. But nobody has tested what happens when a whole lot of people take a shower and their shampoo goes down the drain or they excrete, you know, their antibiotics into the water supply.

We know they're there. When scientists from the United States Geological Survey surveyed water in Virginia, and when other scientists have surveyed other water waste, almost everywhere they look they find them. But you can't tell whether that's because we just have really, really better sensing technology now. We can find them in the parts-per-trillion level sometimes, which is, you know, really low levels. So it's hard to say what this means in terms of their effect on anybody's health.

COX: Well, now there was a survey done by the United States Geological Survey that you write about in the article where waterborne chemicals flared up, I suppose, last summer when researchers discovered - I put a circle around this because I found it fascinating - inter-sex fish in the Potomac River. Fish -small-mouth, large-mouth bass - were male but nevertheless carried immature eggs. And that's a result of being in this water with these emerging contaminants, correct?

Ms. DEAN: Well, you know, that's what a lot of people are worried about. But even the USGS people say we don't know enough yet to draw a direct line from, you know, what people are flushing down the drain to what's happening to these fish. They were surveying the Potomac River Basin and they found this fish in a lot of places. And so it kind of makes people wonder is something going on. But as they say, we don't know enough yet to be able to answer that question for sure.

COX: Let's talk about the testing for a moment. We mentioned that with certain kinds of contaminants they've been tested extensively, actually, in the past, but with some of these they have not. But I would have thought, Cornelia, that shampoo, things like that, would have been tested before they are released for public use and consumption. Is that a mistake?

Ms. DEAN: I think they're tested in terms of whether if you put it on your hair, you know, are bad things going to happen to your hair, that kind of thing, you know, will it burn your eyes or whatever. But what people haven't tested is what happens when you get these things at very low levels, in particular in combination with lots of other things because, you know, there's a huge array of chemicals that are coming into the water.

COX: So the mixture is the problem, then, potentially.

Ms. DEAN: Yes, that's an issue. Because what people are saying is well, you know, maybe the shampoo is okay by itself. But when you get it with, you know, an antibiotic or something, it combines in some way that we haven't anticipated. And as one of the people I spoke to said, you know, when you try to figure out what are the possible combinations, it's just mind-boggling.

COX: Well, let's put this into some context if we can. If these were on television, let's say during sweeps month, you know, a ratings period, it would be killer shampoo, film at 11:00. How should we be reacting to this news?

Ms. DEAN: Well, that's an interesting question. And something similar happened in Britain a couple of years ago when they surveyed water from, you know, near a sewage treatment outfalls, and they discovered that there were all kinds of drugs that were getting in there from the sewage system: antibiotics and hormones and antidepressants and so on. And there was some media coverage in Britain that said, you know, the nation is turning into a nation of inadvertent drug users. And that's the kind of thing that people don't want to encourage in this country because the actual effects of any of this remain unknown. And maybe at low levels there are no effects. This is something I had not really focused on before, but you know how people talk about the placebo effect…

COX: Yes.

Ms. DEAN: …that, you know, someone gives you a drug, and even if it's just a sugar pill you might feel better because you think, oh, I've taken something and it's helping me. But there's an opposite effect called the nocebo effect, and that's if you learn that you're exposed to something and you start thinking gee, you know, I don't feel so good even though maybe nothing's actually happen to you. So they are worried about getting people worried about something that they don't actually have to be concerned about. So it's a real riddle.

COX: Here's my final question for you. I noticed that in order to resolve this issue, even though we're not sure what the source of the problem is or how serious the problem itself actually is, that there are take-back locations being set up involving pharmaceuticals, for example, where you can dispose of unused pharmaceutical drugs at drug stores

Ms. DEAN: Yeah. That's it in the United States.

COX: Okay.

Ms. DEAN: And partly I think it's motivated by the idea that people want to keep dangerous drugs out of the hands of people who might abuse them. But also, they just don't want this stuff getting into the waterways anymore. And the way most people dispose of, you know, unused drugs, if your drugs expire or you didn't take them or maybe you were switched to another medicine or something and you have these things lying around and you don't, you know, you don't want them in the house, what most people do is they flush them down the drain.

COX: Right, flush them down the toilet.

Ms. DEAN: Exactly. And people are saying gee, you know, and maybe that's not the thing to do, and so we should set up locations where you can bring them and where they can be dispose off safely, usually by incinerating them. Often there are like pharmacies will be take-back locations and you can bring your drugs back and they'll dispose off them. And if they're, you know, controlled substances like narcotics, sometimes you can take them back to the police station or the sheriff's office or something to dispose off them.

COX: Cornelia Dean, good information. Thank you very much.

Ms. DEAN: Oh, thank you.

CHIDEYA: Cornelia Dean is editor of The New York Times science section and a lecturer at Harvard University.

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