Pharmaceuticals & Personal Care Products
Most people take for granted the quality of their drinking water and for good reason. Coinciding with America’s rapid urbanization last century was the development of an extensive infrastructure for the storage, treatment and delivery of water for generations to come. The improvement in the quality of water provided by water agencies has been so phenomenal that some of the best tasting water in the world comes not from a plastic bottle, but from the tap.
Water quality is of paramount importance, given the limited supply of fresh water available and the economic necessity of assured safety and reliability. Engineers use cutting edge technology to remove a bevy of contaminants from wastewater at treatment plants, but compounds that are the remnants of products we use every day slip through the treatment process and are discharged. These so-called “emerging contaminants” defy quick analysis and ready-made answers, and may be a significant factor in the water quality equation for years to come.
As is often customary in the realm of science and regulation, one type of emerging contaminants has picked up a handy acronym – PPCPs – Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products. PPCPs represent dozens of constituents spanning a cross section of our daily lives, from that first cup of coffee in the morning to prescription medication to soaps, fragrances and sunscreen. Their path from human use to disposal in the waste stream is fairly straightforward and in keeping with the rules of biological science. What is consumed by or applied to the body is eventually excreted, and along with it the chemical residue of that which is not metabolized.
Unlike traditional pollutants, which are regulated through regulations and best management practices, emerging contaminants could lead regulators down a costly, open-ended path should efforts be geared toward reducing compounds that emanate from a vast universe of individual sources. Because of that, those in the water community believe that while PPCPs in water must be acknowledged, it is important to maintain perspective regarding the possible threat to water quality and the environment.
“I personally believe that one of the major concerns regarding the occurrence of trace residues in drinking water … that originate solely from human excretion is the potential for problems regarding the perception of risk by the public,” said Christian Daughton, chief of the environmental chemistry branch at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas. “The many dimensions of the disconnects that exist between the communication of risk by scientists and how risk is actually perceived by the public pose a number of very interesting questions.”
The efficiency of modern sewage treatment ranges from high to low, depending on the treatment technology applied and the specific PPCP in question. It is through sheer volume and complexity that some PPCPs enter the aquatic environment, albeit at exceedingly small levels previously undetectable. As such, they are not viewed as an imminent, potential threat to human health, but are potentially problematic to the wellbeing of aquatic ecosystems.
“Pharmaceuticals are potentially ubiquitous pollutants because they could be found in any environment inhabited by man,” states an October 2003 article from the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. “As yet, there is little evidence [they] are present … in sufficient quantity to cause significant harm…”
PPCPs gained prominence in the U.S. in 2002, when results from the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) sampling of 139 susceptible streams showed detectable, although minute, quantities of PPCPs targeted by researchers, the most frequent being steroids and nonprescription drugs. Antibiotics, prescription medications, detergents, fire retardants, pesticides and natural and synthetic hormones also were present. The revelation sparked discussion and calls for further research, given the uncertainty associated with the issue.
“We’ve learned it’s way too early to be worried, but that this could become an emerging issue,” said Krista Clark, regulatory affairs specialist with the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA).
Activists say a “wait and see” approach to PPCPs is not suitable, and that instead, efforts should be directed toward minimizing the potential harm to people and the environment. The focus on PPCPs offers a “real opportunity to take the kind of proactive and preventative actions we support in all our work,” said Lena Brook, interim California director with Clean Water Action.
Agency leaders say the significance of PPCP detections must be kept in perspective, given the need for continued monitoring and research, the extensive list of contaminants with more pressing health risks and the potential for the issue to become overemphasized through media coverage.
“This is not about scaring people; it’s about being aware of what’s going on in our environment and tracking it,” said Wally Bishop, general manager of the Contra Costa Water District and chair of the American Water Works Association Research Foundation.
PPCPs have, of course, existed in the environment for much longer than the present interest would indicate. Daughton notes at EPA’s web site “there is no reason to believe that PPCPs have not existed in the environment for as long as they have been used commercially.”
Current knowledge about PPCPs in water is due to remarkable advancements in science that have enabled the detection of compounds in water at concentrations so infinitesimal that the comparisons used for illustrative purposes – such as a cube of sugar dissolved in four Olympic-sized swimming pools – are nearly incomprehensible. Nonetheless, these advancements have piqued interest in the extent of the presence and persistence of PPCPs in water, their effects on aquatic organisms and, most importantly, their possible effects on human health.
“The issue has received a lot of attention in the research community because it’s new and intriguing,” said David Sedlak, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not taken off to the same degree in the regulatory world because we don’t know what the human health effects might be.”
Sedlak said some of the interest is driven by the presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which are thought to adversely affect the reproductive systems of fish. PPCPs are being analyzed to determine the characteristics of chemicals and the possible synergistic effects resulting from chemical interaction, the degree to which they are continually introduced into waters and the preliminary framework, if any, of potential regulations. While looking for potential links between PPCPs in water and threats to drinking water quality, researchers are concentrating on the extent to which PPCPs may affect aquatic life.
“Fish breathe water, so they are very sensitive to constituents in water,” said Ann Heil, senior engineer with Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.
Indeed, PPCPs, many of which are designed to elicit specific reactions within the human body, are suspected of disrupting the metabolism of fish, even at low concentrations. Among the offenders is estrogen, both natural and synthetic, and anti-depressant medications, which can cause a wide array of behavior changes in fin and shellfish, including the same calming effect as occurs in people. The difference is that while the therapeutic aspects of the medication may benefit people, it does not behoove a fish to swim slowly in circles while hungry predators lurk about.
“There’s good reason to emphasize the possible aquatic effects because the concentrations [in treated effluent] are higher than drinking water and there’s also lifelong exposure [to aquatic life], whereas exposure to people is much lower and intermittent,” Daughton said.
Daughton said the extremely low concentrations of PPCPs and the absence of rigorous analytical data prohibits scientists from reaching definitive conclusions regarding their consequences. “The thing that’s important for the public to realize is that we’ve already known these chemicals occur for a number of decades,” he said. “It’s not the chemicals that are emerging; it’s our knowledge of the issue that’s emerging.”
Scientists caution that the public’s “risk perception,” which does not often correlate with hard evidence, could unduly spur water quality efforts that do not represent the best use of available resources. Daughton, in a paper published earlier this year by the National Ground Water Association, asked whether public ambivalence about the safety of water reuse “emanates from the fundamental inaccuracies, misrepresentation, or oversimplification of what water is and how it functions in the environment – just exactly what the water cycle is.”
“A large amount of public funds are being spent on trace occurrence studies without addressing the fundamental risk issue,” said Shane Snyder, research and development project manager with the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). Snyder is principal investigator on three grant projects related to PPCPs, including evaluation of the toxicological relevance of pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water.
Some of that research will be examined at an Oct. 27-29 water quality conference in Ontario, Calif., sponsored by the East Valley Water District.
This issue of Western Water examines PPCPs – what they are, where they come from and whether the potential exists for them to become a water quality problem. With the continued emphasis on water quality and the fact that many water systems in the West are characterized by flows dominated by effluent contributions, PPCPs seem likely to capture interest for the foreseeable future.
Excerpt from A Conversation with Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman
RITA SCHMIDT SUDMAN: The Schwarzenegger Administration has both Republicans and Democrats, liberals, conservatives, and the word on the street is that Terry Tamminen is the “green” environmental appointee and you are the business appointee. Do you perceive it that way?
MIKE CHRISMAN: I don’t perceive it that way at all. Governor Schwarzenegger’s cabinet is reflective of California’s diversity, and the governor made his appointments accordingly. We may come from very different backgrounds, but we are all committed to this governor and committed to his vision and committed to the work of his administration.
SUDMAN: I’ve heard that you’ve gotten together, and you really talk and brainstorm and it’s an open feeling. Is that the way it is?
CHRISMAN: Yes, we have very good relationships. The governor is engaged with us, and we meet monthly as cabinet officers and we work together. [Cal/EPA Secretary] Terry Tamminen and I work on a wide variety of environmental projects together and continue to spend a great deal of time together. [Food and Agriculture Secretary] A.G. Kawamura and I also work together closely on agricultural and natural resources projects. You can look across this government and see that it’s reflective of Governor Schwarzenegger’s vision of being inclusive and collaborative. He expects us to work in partnership as cabinet members, but also as we reach out to our constituencies across California.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 20-page magazine, including the complete conversation with Mike Chrisman, is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the July/August 2004 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
The driving force in California’s water history has been the quest for water supply – locating water to support agricultural and urban development. Of course, finding high quality water was important to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland when these young – but booming – urban centers built some of the state’s first major water delivery systems in the early 1900s.
As we move into the 21st century, water quality issues have taken on an equal – if not greater – importance than water quantity issues. There are a variety of reasons for this new focus. For one, many cities and urban water districts are using the technology of today to clean up water polluted by past industrial and agricultural activities. Other areas are turning to sources such as brackish groundwater, which is cheaper to desalt than ocean water.
Beyond this quantity/quality connection, urban water providers are committed to protecting human health and providing the best quality drinking water possible. With today’s technology at hand, they are able to deliver some of the safest and best tasting water to the taps of millions of Californians. But increased awareness of pollutants and potential health effects has coincided with the technological ability to detect the presence of contaminants in smaller and smaller amounts.
An emerging issue of concern is pharmaceuticals and personal health care products or PPCP’s. As Writer Gary Pitzer explains in this article, PPCPs represent dozens of constituents spanning a cross section of our daily lives, from that first cup of coffee in the morning to prescription medication to soaps, fragrances and sunscreen. These products leave our bodies and ultimately end up at the wastewater treatment plant. Modern treatment methods succeed in removing most PPCP remnants from wastewater before it is discharged to surface waters. But through sheer volume and complexity, some remains of PPCPs enter the aquatic environment, albeit at tissue-thin levels previously undetectable. The experts quoted in this article are quick to point out that PPCPs are not viewed as an imminent threat to drinking water quality, but they are potentially problematic to the well being of aquatic ecosystems.
To learn more about the pharmaceutical/water connection, I would encourage you to attend East Valley Water District’s Annual Water Quality Conference, Oct. 27-29 at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario, CA. The conference will offer the opportunity to hear from leading specialists in the fields of research, treatment technologies, health effect issues, regulations and policy about pharmaceuticals, as well as these other water quality issues: perchlorate, disinfection by-products, arsenic and radon.
More than 400 people are expected to attend this multi-day, multi-track conference, co-sponsored by the Foundation. Visit this web site to learn more about the conference, sponsorship opportunities or to register.
- Who: East Valley Water District
- What: Water Quality Conference
- Where: Ontario, CA
- When: Oct. 27-29, 2004
In the News
Court Ruling Ushers Unforeseen Consequences for State Flood Liability
The state’s liability for flood protection could reach epic proportions as officials sift through the fallout of a recent state Supreme Court action that could result in costly compensation paid to flood victims from nearly 20 years ago.
The court in March refused to hear an appeal filed by Attorney General Bill Lockyer in response to a lower court ruling that the state neglected to upgrade a stretch of levee on the Feather River that gave way in 1986, flooding the town of Linda. Besides the financial impact, the case could have far-reaching implications regarding the levees overseen by the state and future development in floodplains.
The decision is significant because of the finding that the state was directly responsible for a levee failure because of the lack of improvement projects undertaken. State lawyers had argued that the destruction was unavoidable, but the Third District Court of Appeals (DCA) in November 2003 found that the state should have known the fragile nature of the levee and had “ample opportunity” to monitor it and effect necessary improvements.
The case, Paterno v. State of California, involved about 3,000 plaintiffs seeking redress for damages caused Feb. 20, 1986, when heavy rains caused the levee collapse. The Linda levee, built by farmers in the 19th century with the debris from hydraulic mining, is part of the Sacramento River Flood Control Project, which the state assumed responsibility for in 1953. Experts determined the shoddy construction of the levee, which consisted of layers of sand, played a role in its failure, as did floods in 1955 and 1964, which weakened its integrity.
The Paterno case, which also named a local reclamation district, wound its way through the lower court process, during which the state was twice absolved of liability. The plaintiffs persevered, arguing that the state owed them compensation for property lost in the flooding.
In its opinion, the DCA took note of the levee’s shortcomings, noting “the environmental aftermath of the Gold Rush continues to plague California.” But, in language most applicable to the chronically under funded status of levee maintenance, the DCA opined that “when a public entity operates a flood control system built by someone else, it accepts liability as if it had planned and built the system itself.”
While the court found the state was not liable for failing to upgrade the levee to provide additional protection, it determined the state knew the levee was built with substandard material, and that “long before the failure, feasible cures could have fixed the problems.” State attorneys argued the case “presents questions of far-reaching importance to all public entities involved in California flood control projects.” The DCA’s decision, they said, “presents a real threat to all public flood control agencies of debilitating liability that will most certainly discourage further construction or other involvement in flood control projects.”
The State’s potential liability to the remaining plaintiffs ranges from $800 million to $1.5 billion. An October trial court hearing is scheduled for another lawsuit filed by victims of a 1997 flood caused by a levee break in Arboga.
In other flood-related developments, officials say the cost of the June 3 Delta levee break at Upper Jones Tract will reach $93.7 million. Restoration plans include closing the breach and pumping water from the island. Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow told the California Bay Delta Authority June 10 the land could possibly return to agricultural production by next spring.