Emerging contaminants, emerging solutions - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Emerging contaminants, emerging solutions

About 200 reports are now released annually about low levels of chemicals, such as drugs, detergents and plastics, in our waterways.  As products, these compounds are beneficial (I am grateful that my office mates use soap.) Some of them, like heart meds, are even life-saving.  The problem begins once we are done using them — when they are flushed (one way or another) down the toilet or swept away in stormwater, and flow into our streams and lakes.  Because, especially in areas like the Fox River Basin, that is also our drinking water.  We know that some of these chemicals, at certain levels, can disrupt our endocrine system, causing a host of health problems, ranging from infertility to cancer.  But, is there enough in our water to make us sick?  

To try to answer that, on Sept. 15th, Openlands and MPC held “Emerging Contaminants, Emerging Solutions,” our latest roundtable on the region’s water challenges (listen to the audio recording, courtesy of Chicago Amplified). Almost 80 people from through the region convened in Elgin to hear about known (and unknown) risks, and possible methods to prevent or reduce contamination.  The audience had the opportunity to ask national experts about cutting-edge scientific findings on the issue.

Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, discussed what we’ve been able to find in our water.  We introduce masses of understudied compounds into our streams every day.  As Dana said, “Anything we use has the potential to become an environmental contaminant.” Dana highlighted an example of a chemical close to my heart — caffeine.  Without it, I am barely coherent in the morning.  We can now get our daily dose traditionally in coffee and chocolate, or through innovative products like soap (to wake you up in the shower), bottled water, and popcorn (perhaps to keep you awake through your spouse’s movies).  This seems amusing, until we look at how most of this caffeine winds up in our wastewater and add to the collective of other drugs that our wastewater treatment plants can’t traditionally remove.  Caffeine, which seems innocuous enough, is actually a great example in that it can do more than just keep you up at night.  It can interact poorly with other drugs, such as certain antibiotics — and even something as benign as Echinacea. 

What really is the risk?

These drugs have already had dramatic effects on wildlife in contaminated waters.  According to Kolpin, scientists are finding endocrine disrupting compounds in all kinds of plants and animal tissue, from earth worms to fish.  He showed a picture of fish, once male, that turned into a female (inside and out) from high estrogen levels in an experiment in Boulder, Col. 

When we drink water with these chemicals in it, we are also exposed in our tissue and blood as well.  Yet, Carole Braverman, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the levels of what they detected in our drinking water are not high enough for us to be affected.  The problem is that we have only begun to understand the chronic long-term low level effects of the amalgam of contaminants on people — especially fetal exposure and effects on other sensitive populations.  Endocrine disrupting compounds could even have trans-generation effects, influencing the health of our kids and grandchildren. To make it even more confusing, low concentrations don’t necessarily create more mild responses. As a 20-year veteran toxicologist, Carole Braverman said that endocrine disruptors make carcinogens look simple.  For that reason, many scientists like Dana Kolpin are still on the fence, and want to see more studies on human health risks.

So what can we do now to protect ourselves?

Unfortunately, with emerging contaminants, we can’t take a traditional approach of measuring the levels of a single pollutant, and then installing a treatment method to strain it out.  Emerging contaminants — even the smaller subset of endocrine disrupting compounds — are like a moving target.  The combinations in this veritable soup are staggering, and the levels fluctuate.  While certain treatment methods will handle a spectrum of contaminants, such as estrogen, most wastewater treatment plants are only beginning to look at retrofitting their systems. 

While technology catches up, we can prevent some of the medicine from contaminating our water in the first place. Laura Kammin, with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, shared how communities can and should set up drug take-back programs as an alternative to flushing used medication down the toilet.  New legislation in Illinois just made that a little easier, by tacking on fines for drug offenses that will help pay for collection facilities at police departments.  A new state law also allows the Attorney General to rewrite certain restrictions under the Controlled Substance Act so that people can give pharmacies their used medicine.  Overall, Laura stressed the importance of education and public outreach to overcome the biggest challenge — throwing drugs out or flushing them is easier than bringing old medication to a collection point.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to establish successful drug take-back programs

We can learn a lot from wastewater treatment plant facilities like Fox Metro, who have developed a great permanent drug take back facility, with help from the Illinois EPA.  The Fox Metro plant treats an average of 32 million gallons of sewage per day.  While their facility treats common pollutants, it wasn’t designed to handle pharmaceuticals.  With studies showing drastic impacts to wildlife that depend on the water, Fox Metro decided it was important to start a drug take-back program.  As Debra Ness, the Fox Metro Pretreatment Supervisor, explained, “If it’s not there, you don’t have to get rid of it.”

The program has been amazingly successful: One of the only complaints Debra received was that the collection box was too full to take someone’s used medication.  They empty the box twice a week.  While Fox Metro is not allowed to take controlled substances without a police officer on their premises, they still find these substances in their bins.  They make it very clear that they can’t collect these kinds of drugs, but in the end, they just dispose of whatever is in their collection box.   Debra realizes that some of the drugs we swallow will still wind up in the plant’s treatment system, but at least they can prevent part of the problem.

So what’s next?

In addition to maintaining the momentum of scientific and technological research, it is imperative that we help communities understand what we are learning.  People will be more receptive to driving out to a collection center, and paying for better treatment, if they understand that the detergent they use on their floor is now flowing through their kitchen faucet.  They need to see what these chemicals are doing to their surrounding environment, and importantly — learn about what that means to them.  Most importantly, we need to continue to make it as easy and convenient as possible for people to do the right thing.  Coincidentally, Oct. 29 is the 3rd annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.  Police stations and other venues will be collecting unused pharmaceuticals throughout the country; just enter your zip code and the Drug Enforcement Agency will tell you where to go.  So simple, so convenient.

For more information, the Alliance for the Great Lakes just released a great new report on emerging contaminants in Lake Michigan, and as always, check out our coverage of regional water issues on the What Our Water’s Worth home page and blog.

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