The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers pharmaceuticals an “emerging concern,” and has concluded that the chemicals may pose risks to wildlife and humans. There are currently no federal regulations of the compounds in waste or drinking water. However, 12 pharmaceuticals are currently on the EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List, which are chemicals that may require regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“You cannot blame the wastewater plants, they’re not out of compliance and there’s no incentive to start changing their technologies,” Kolpin said.
Klaper said the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District does a much better job than other plants at removing many compounds. But they’re just not equipped to handle the volume.
“For example, we found quite a bit of caffeine in the lake, and they’re removing about 90 percent of the caffeine that comes in for treatment,” she said. “They can’t remove everything.”
With pharmaceuticals increasingly flowing into plants, capturing the compounds is going to be a challenge for not only Milwaukee but for treatment plants across the country, said Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.
“At the time wastewater treatment plants were developed, these compounds were just not an issue,” Shafer said.
Shafer and colleagues are researching ways to bolster their pharmaceutical capture, including testing carbon filter technology.
Shafer said the carbon filters have a “good response but are very expensive and geared toward lower flows at smaller treatment plants.” The department also has collected 21 tons of unused medicines since 2006 so people don’t flush them down toilets.
There won’t be a silver bullet to tackle pharmaceuticals in wastewater, said Olga Lyandres, a research manager with the Alliance for the Great Lakes organization. But, with about 40 million people relying on the Great Lakes for drinking water, there needs to be more urgency in keeping these compounds out of the lakes.
“The development and use of new technologies needs to be a priority,” she said. “And we really need increased monitoring by the facilities and the EPA to keep tabs on what’s there.”
The new study hopefully will spur awareness of the water cycle in the region, Lyandres said.
“People should reconsider the notion that the Great Lakes are so large that this stuff cannot hurt us,” she said. “The stuff you excrete and wash down the drain ends up in the same bodies of water that you drink out of.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.