Turning our water into chemical soup

By  Simon Appolloni, Catholic Register Special
  • November 17, 2005
Where do all the pharmaceutical drugs, cosmetics and toiletry chemicals go after we've ingested them, fed them to our livestock or rinsed them off our bodies?
If you guessed our water system, you are in line with recent findings in Europe, the United States and now Canada.

A chemical soup of sorts, containing everything from antibiotics, natural and synthetic hormones, blood lipid regulators, anti-depressants, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, tranquilizers, chemotherapy drugs, drugs used to treat epilepsy and blood cholesterol, disinfectants and a family of chemicals called phthalates, found in many cosmetics, perfumes and hair products, has been detected in our lakes, rivers and streams.

Our abundant use of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics is nothing new. Canadians spent $9.5 billion on prescription drugs alone in 2000, up 72 per cent from 1995. It's only recently, however, that the technology to test for trace amounts of these chemicals in our water has become available, according to Environment Canada.

Needless to say, such a finding has raised concern among health officials and environmentalists, as to the effects this pollution might have on ecosystems and human health. So far, little is known about the effects on humans and what dangers this might pose to human health.

Dr. Chris Metcalfe, who teaches at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., is conducting research on pharmaceutical drugs in both water and sewage sludge. He acknowledges, "A limited survey of concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water in Canada has shown that drinking water is occasionally contaminated with some drugs before treatment."

However, as Metcalfe points out, "The concentrations are typically in the low part per trillion amounts in drinking water, which are very low."

But he is quick to note that the issue of drugs in drinking water does not address concerns over disturbing environmental effects.

One of these relates to our overuse of antibiotics. We feed pigs, cattle and poultry vast amounts of antibiotics to enhance growth and to compensate for the crowded, unsanitary conditions associated with factory farming. Sure enough, the farm animals excrete most of these antibiotics into fields where they run off into lakes and streams. Scientists fear the presence of trace amounts of antibiotics in waters may lead to the development of resistant strains of bacteria.

Another concern, according to the National Water Research Institute of Environment Canada, is the mounting evidence that species continuously exposed to low levels of some of these chemicals in the environment could experience adverse health effects. A study in the United States, for example, attributes the feminization of male fish (male carp and trout that produce an egg protein usually found only in female fish) with exposure to sewage effluent containing ethinyl estradiol, the active ingredient in birth control pills.

All this may seem chilling, and it is, especially considering there is so much about the possible outcomes that we do not know.

Before running out to the nearest store to stock up on bottled water, however, Karl Flecker, researcher for the Polaris Institute, cautions us that bottled water products do not offer protection from contaminants. He cites a number of scientific and peer-reviewed studies of a wide number of bottled water brands which have found "alarming concentrations of arsenic, mercury and bacterial contaminants."

Flecker would rather see us invest in upgrading public systems so that we can ensure our water purification processes will be accountable.

"This will allow us to repair, expand and modernize so as to deal with new contaminants," he said.

Our low-tech sewage treatment processes do not completely clean up the chemicals. And as Metcalfe points out, "Removal of drugs from sewage prior to discharge into the environment is largely a question of appropriate technology in sewage treatment plants, which costs money."  

But even if technology were able to remove these chemicals, experts point out that there remains the problem of what to do with the retained contaminants; they do not just disappear.

Ethicist Dennis Patrick O'Hara, assistant professor at the faculty of theology, University of St. Michael's College and director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, offers the best long-term solution.

"Rather than just reacting to the discovery of chemicals in the environment, shouldn't we be preventing that accumulation?" 

 As O'Hara points out, although we are wakening to the issue, "We are still a society that has tended to seek the quick fix or short-term solution to problems rather than preventing the problem in the first place."

<i>(Appolloni is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register and a member of the Elliot Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.)

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