Environmental Law Blog
What's in the Water?
Across the nation and in Missouri, the improper disposal of pharmaceuticals and other emerging microbial contaminants has evolved into a significant concern.
According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, pharmaceuticals enter the environment when medication residues pass out of the body into sewer lines or the items are flushed down the drain and into our wastewater treatment facilities. Pharmaceuticals can include prescription and over-the-counter medicines, dietary aids, any other product consumed by individuals for health reasons. Domestic sewage is considered a major source of pharmaceuticals in the environment. For tips on how to dispose of pharmaceutical wastes without harming your water supply, check out the Missouri Department of Natural Resources fact sheet.
Microbial contaminants are microorganisms that are discharged into wastewater treatment systems after manufacturing, industrial, common household, agricultural or other activities. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is researching the most common specific sources of these sometimes dangerous contaminants as well as the most common pathways for microbial contaminants to our rivers and streams.
Why are these new contaminants so bad for the environment? Both pharmaceutical and microbial contaminants harm the beneficial bacteria, or "good bugs," that break down waste in septic systems or wastewater treatment plants. These wastewater treatment facilities are not engineered for pharmaceutical or microbial contaminant removal, so the contaminants are then released into nearby lakes, rivers or groundwater.
The USGS first studied the effects of wastewater and combined sewer overflows on national water quality in the Blue River Basin, Kansas City Missouri and Kansas from July 1998 through October 2000. A team of scientists studied the contaminants indicative of wastewater, including antioxidants, caffeine, detergent, antimicrobials, and pharmaceuticals. The team discovered that water quality in the basin was affected by human wastewater during regular periods and heavy rainfall periods, alike, suggesting that wastewater discharges that result from heavy rainfalls do not necessarily increase the likelihood of these contaminants getting into our drinking water-they are already getting there.
The USGS conducted its second national study on the Upper Shoal Creek Basin in Southwest Missouri from 1999 trough 2000. Scientists discovered that concentrations of nitrogen were unusually large, which could be almost entirely attributed to discharge from wastewater treatment plants. Scientists further concluded that the trend of increasing fecal coliform densities corresponded with precipitation rises and consequential human wastewater treatment discharges, rather than changes in land use or animal operations.
Drinking these contaminants through our public drinking water systems can be harmful, but scientists have not yet collected enough data to understand the potential effect of pharmaceutical and microbial contaminants in water on human health. Certain studies have also indicated that fish and plant wildlife are being adversely affected by the presence of these emerging contaminants in their habitats.
Unfortunately, the improper disposal of pharmaceuticals escapes the restrictions on water pollution set forth in the Clean Water Act. According to the Clean Water Act, any entity that causes or permits the pollution of the waters of the United States with a water contaminant constitutes a point source. But, generally, point sources are limited to companies, organizations, or farm operations.
What do you think Missouri should do about this wide-spread, growing problem? Currently, neither state nor local law restrict human disposal of pharmaceutical or microbial contaminants into wastewater treatment systems in Missouri or any other state. However, Columbia has joined several cities around the nation in investigating the pharmaceutical presence in its drinking water. The Columbian Missourian details the investigative plan, according to local health officials, in an April 22, 2008, article. Can you think of a creative solution?