Fluoride Action Network

Ohio River study finds drugs, chemicals that slip through waste treatment

Source: The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) | July 12th, 2010 | By James Bruggers
Industry type: Perfluorinated chemicals


The percentage increase of selected chemicals in the Ohio River after passing through Louisville:

PFPeA [perfluoro-n-pentanoic acid] breakdown product of stain- and grease-proof coatings on food packaging, couches, carpets: 58.2 percent
PFOA used in chemical manufacturing, and to make products resist fire and repel oil, stains, grease, and water, and provide non-stick surfaces on cookware: 3 percent
Benzoylecgonine breakdown product of cocaine: 117 percent
Caffeine stimulant in coffee and other beverages: 59 percent
Carbamazepine anticonvulsive and mood stabilizer: 31 percent
Gemfibrozil reduces cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood: 34 percent
Atenolol reduces blood pressure and angina: 25 percent
Sulfamethoxazole antibacterial: 51 percent
DEET insect repellent: 81 percent
Metformin anti-diabetic: 23 percent


Dozens of chemicals and pharmaceuticals — antidepressants, veterinary hormones, even cocaine — have been detected in the Ohio River upstream and downstream from Louisville.

Researchers who conducted the study downplayed the potential effects for the 5 million people along the 981-mile river who use it for drinking water. The contaminants, they said, are in extremely low concentrations.

But outside scientists who reviewed the data noted that some of the pollutants have been tied to feminization of male fish, effects that should serve as a warning to people.

“When we see something this basic being altered in fish, we should be concerned about what it’s doing to our own health,” said biologist Peter DeFur, a research associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in chemical contaminants in the environment and was not involved in the study.

The drugs and chemicals were found in a survey by the eight-state Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission even though sewage treatment efforts screen out a significant percentage of the contaminants.

The sampling at 22 locations from Pittsburgh to Paducah is the first to determine such a widespread presence in the Ohio of what are called “contaminants of emerging concern” and are a new focus of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The sanitation commission, which was established by Congress and Ohio River states in 1948, and its partner in the study, the EPA, say there’s little information available regarding human health risks of what they found.

Outside scientists said there are legitimate concerns that the contaminants, including medications that pass through people and into the sewage system, may pose health risks to people.

Several drugs were detected at trace levels in Louisville Water Co. tap water in 2004 as part of a separate national survey. Experts said it’s likely that at least some drugs and chemicals in the river are still routinely passing through treatment systems into drinking water.

“I don’t like the idea of taking somebody else’s medication through my water supply,” said Leonard Buckner, a Louisville Water Co. customer. “It seems like we need to understand this better.”

Some home filter systems claim to remove many of the pharmaceuticals. But those claims have not yet been verified, said Tom Bruursema, who manages a water treatment certification program for NSF International, a nonprofit public health and safety agency that tests and sets standards for water treatment systems.

‘The big unknown’

“Just because you find it doesn’t mean it’s a problem,” said Erich Emery, a biologist and research manager working on the study for the commission, commonly known as ORSANCO. “We have the ability to detect (almost) anything we want now.”

ORSANCO’s 279-page screening survey is almost entirely made up of raw data. ORSANCO staff and the EPA are working on a final report to be completed early next year.

The Cincinnati-based commission this spring gave the data to its member states. It also provided a copy to The Courier-Journal, which reviewed it with several outside environmental health experts, including Theo Colborn, who said some of the detected chemicals are considered endocrine disrupters. They can mimic or interfere with hormones in the body, possibly affecting tissues and organs.

The 1996 book Colborn co-authored, “Our Stolen Future,” brought international attention to the issue, and she said research has suggested potential links between endocrine disrupters and such medical conditions as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity, early puberty and infertility.

“The big unknown is the mixture of these things being taken together,” said DeFur, the Virginia Commonwealth biologist. “We have no idea how to even think about what that means.”

DeFur said the sampling results are a confirmation of what has previously been found in states such as Delaware, Minnesota and California, and nationally by the U.S. Geological Survey.

He and others spoke of the need for a precautionary approach.

“When you are faced with an unknown and you believe there is potential for harm, you err on the side of human health,” said Dr. David Tollerud, chairman of the department of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Louisville’s School of Public Health.

Nearly indestructible

The $85,000 study was designed to look for 158 contaminants, including 118 pharmaceuticals, hormones and personal care products. It also looked for perfluorinated compounds, which have been widely used in nonstick coatings for pots and pans and in stain- and grease-proof coatings for food packaging and fabric.

All are essentially unregulated in the nation’s waterways and drinking water supplies and are among thousands of chemicals made by humans that are of potential concern.

Terry Collins, who leads Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Green Science in Pittsburgh and reviewed the ORSANCO data for the newspaper, called it “a very good study” that sheds light “on a large number of compounds.”

“… Some of them are coming back in our drinking water,” he said.

He said the perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, are nearly indestructible, and they build up in humans and animals.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has found as many as 12 PFCs in a national survey of human blood serum, says people are likely exposed by consuming them in food or water or by using products that contain them.

Some PFCs have been linked to liver toxicity in fish and liver cancer in rodents, Collins said.

The drugs that were detected in the river water include some of the most commonly prescribed medications, said Dr. George Bosse, medical director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center in Louisville. The study found medications used to fight depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and infection.

Also frequently detected was caffeine, as well as evidence of cocaine and nicotine from tobacco products.

Our bodies don’t use all the medication we take, and some gets excreted in human waste. Drugs also enter the environment when people flush unwanted medication down toilets. Of those two sources, the Food and Drug Administration says human excretion produces more drug contaminants.

Other sources of drugs in the environment include runoff from farms and water that passes through landfills.

The drugs found in the Ohio River include three prescriptions in the medicine cabinet of St. Matthews resident and longtime water quality advocate Winnie Hepler. The 82-year-old is battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure.

The medications, she said, allow her to go on daily walks and attend public events.

“I think I’d be confined to crawling around in my apartment otherwise,” she said.

But she also said she hopes the research leads to efforts to reduce the contaminants in the water.

“We really need to know what we are doing,” she said. “We don’t want to do harm.”

Plant discharges

Many of the samples were taken above and below the wastewater treatment plants of cities along the river. In most cases, including Louisville, the concentrations were higher in the effluent.

For example, concentrations of the anti-convulsive and mood stabilizer carbamazepine, sold under brand names including Tegretol, increased 31 percent just below Louisville’s Morris Forman treatment plant on the Ohio River. The concentration of the PFC known as PFPeA was 58 percent higher; and the concentration of atenolol, a blood pressure drug, was 25 percent higher.

The study also found the concentration of benzoylecgonine, the urinary breakdown product of cocaine, was 117 percent higher in the Morris Forman effluent plume, while caffeine was 59 percent higher, and the level of DEET, the insect repellent, was 81 percent higher. The increase in the cocaine indicator in effluent plumes of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh was even bigger — in the 200 percent range.

Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove all contaminants, said Collins, the Carnegie Mellon chemist.

“The fact that you are seeing spikes and you can trace them to a treatment plant is a promising thing,” he said. “We can do better. We can lower those concentrations.”

Future filtering

For their part, ORSANCO officials say they are not sure that the levels of what they found in the river need to come down.

“It would be nice if we had a better sense of which chemicals to worry about,” said Peter Tennant, deputy director of the commission.

The regulatory system is not set up to deal with such a large inventory of potential threats, Tennant said, adding that the EPA typically issues just three or four new water quality standards per year.

“That kind of pace just isn’t going to cut it for the thousands of chemicals that are of emerging concern,” Tennant said.

EPA officials declined to be interviewed. But in a statement from EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones, they said they are studying a list of 104 contaminants — including, for the first time, pharmaceuticals — for potential drinking water limits.

In August, the EPA said it will launch a survey looking for some 200 drugs and other chemicals in the source and tap waters of about 50 drinking water utilities across the United States, with the results anticipated by late 2011.

At both the Louisville Water Co. and the Metropolitan Sewer District, officials said their current treatment already removes some contaminants identified by ORSANCO.

Water company officials say what comes out the taps of its customers meets all current water quality standards, and officials at MSD say they are meeting current discharge standards.

Representatives from both said the contaminants could be reduced further as they upgrade their plants to meet new standards for unrelated pollutants.

For example, the Louisville Water Co.’s new, $50million riverbank-filtration system that is scheduled to come fully online at its Payne Treatment Plant near Prospect should be able to remove 90 percent of drugs and other chemical compounds, said Rengao Song, manager of water quality and research for the city-owned company. Payne supplies about 30 percent of the city’s water.

He said the company is studying additional treatment options at its main Crescent Hill plant. It has budgeted up $200 million toward that work, which would be done over the next decade, said Vince Guenthner, a company spokesman.

And MSD just started to look into potential designs and cost of a third layer of treatment at Morris Forman, its largest plant, that would meet potential new effluent limits for chemical elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

MSD Operations Director Alex Novak said he will see whether any of the designs might also be effective with drugs and other unregulated chemicals. “If there’s a solution that can also incorporate these endocrine disrupters, then that’s the way to go,” Novak said.

“The anticipation is that we will (eventually) have to do something,” he said.


(See original article for map of Ohio River were contaminants were tested)


In a sampling of Louisville drinking water done in 2004, researchers, in cooperation with the Louisville Water Co., identified nine drugs in tap water at trace levels:

– Caffeine, stimulant
– Sulfamethoxazole, anti bacterial
– Meprobamate, anti-anxiety medication
– Dilantin, anticonvulsive
– Carbamazepine, anticonvulsive and mood stabilizer
– DEET, insect repellant
– Iopromide, radiographic contrast agent
– Ibuprofen, anti inflammatory
– Gemfibrozil, reduces cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood


– Ask your doctor or pharmacist if they’ll accept unwanted medicines.

– Generally, government agencies say don’t flush drugs down the sink or toilet. But the Food and Drug Administration keeps a list of 27 medications, such as morphine, OxyContin, Percocet, Demerol and methadone, that they recommend people flush down the drain as a safety precaution.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy recommends the following for other drugs:

Take drugs out of original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, like cat litter or used coffee grounds.

Put the mixture in a disposable container with a lid, such as an empty margarine container or sealable bag.

Remove or black out the prescription drug labels and place the drug containers in with the mixture.

Seal and put in the trash.

– Jefferson and Oldham County drug drop-offs for the fall haven’t been scheduled yet. Floyd County, Ind., residents can drop off unwanted medications at Floyd Memorial Hospital, 1850 State St., New Albany, from 2 to 3 p.m. the second Thursday of each month.