Dec 26, 2009

EPA lists 13 pharmaceuticals as candidates for regulation

MSBNC The Associated Press reported last year that the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans contained concentrations of a multitude of drugs. Water utilities, replying to an AP questionnaire, acknowledged the presence of antibiotics, sedatives, sex hormones and dozens of other drugs in their supplies.

The news reports stirred congressional hearings and legislation, more water testing and more disclosure of test results. For example, an Illinois law goes into effect Jan. 1 banning health care institutions from flushing unused medicine into wastewater systems.

The EPA's new study will look for 200 chemical and microbial contaminants at 50 plants that treat drinking water. The list includes 125 pharmaceuticals or related chemicals. This research will help federal water officials decide if regulations are needed.

In the first move toward possible drinking-water standards, the EPA has put 13 pharmaceuticals on what it calls the Contaminant Candidate List. They are mostly sex hormones, but include the antibiotic erythromycin and three chemicals used as drugs but better known for other uses.

They join a list of 104 chemical and 12 microbial contaminants that the EPA is considering as candidates for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. No pharmaceutical has ever reached the list in its 12-year history, but medicines now make up 13 percent of the target chemicals on the latest list "based on their potential adverse health effects and potential for occurrence in public water systems," the EPA said.

They take a place beside such better-known contaminants as the metal cobalt, formaldehyde, the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate, and the disease germ E. coli.

'A major public concern'
"I think this does signal a change in the regulatory and research approaches," said Conrad Volz, a University of Pittsburgh scientist whose research raises questions about the risk of eating fish from waters contaminated with sex hormones. "What's happening is pretty amazing."

Several scientists within and outside government tied the stronger focus on human health to the Obama administration and the president's appointment of Lisa Jackson, a highly regarded former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to run the EPA.

"I think we are trying to be as aggressive as we can. We understand it's a major national issue. We understand it's a major public concern," said Peter Silva, the new water administrator at the EPA.

A recently released EPA study found more than 40 pharmaceuticals — everything from antibiotics to heart medicine to antidepressants — at nine publicly owned wastewater treatment plants. The drugs appeared in concentrations measured in parts per billion and trillion. Many passed right through the plants.

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