The calamitous and ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill has brought pollution to the center of the public consciousness again. The environmental effects of the petroleum industry’s operations have been the subject of public scrutiny for years. The current spill has understandably focused regulators’ attention on oil pollution, but we should remember that other sectors, including the pharmaceutical industry, can sometimes release pollutants into our waterways, too.
Scientists previously have observed active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in our water supply, thus spurring calls for an investigation. The US Geological Survey (USGS) now has conducted the first study in the United States that assesses pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities as a potential source of pharmaceuticals in the environment.
The group discovered that effluent from two wastewater-treatment plants in New York that receive more than 20% of their wastewater from pharmaceutical facilities had concentrations of pharmaceuticals that were 10 to 1000 times higher than outflows from 24 plants nationwide that do not receive wastewater from pharmaceutical manufacturers. Among other APIs, USGS found 3800 ppb of the muscle relaxant metaxalone and 1700 ppb of the analgesic oxycodone in wastewater-treatment plants’ effluent.
One goal of the study was to help officials develop effective water-management practices. Indeed, current practices may be insufficient. A recent European study found that treatment failed to remove the majority of pharmaceuticals from incoming wastewater, and these drugs were still present in the river waters receiving the treated water. On the positive side, European researchers found that single pharmaceuticals in river waters posed no significant risks, probably because they were highly diluted. But pharmaceuticals often are present as mixtures that could have greater, unknown toxic effects on ecosystems.
USGS has done us all a favor by quantifying the levels of APIs in the effluent from treatment plants, but this should be the first step in a longer process. We need to gain a clearer understanding of APIs’ potential effects on ecosystems so that we can set limits on these chemicals. Ultimately, we must use data from USGS and future studies to find better ways of removing APIs from wastewater. I think that these steps are crucial to safeguarding our health and to protecting our environment.