By Wally Kennedy
Finding pharmaceuticals in local rivers and creeks, including the upper reaches of Shoal Creek, is nothing new in Southwest Missouri. Research conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey found drugs in Joplin’s watershed in 1999.
But a decade later, no one can say whether the drugs have found their way into Joplin’s drinking water. Missouri American Water Co. tests for a number of contaminants, but it does not test for pharmaceuticals. It is not required to do so by federal regulations.
That required testing could be in the works. Two U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., plan to conduct hearings in response to a five-month investigation by The Associated Press into the presence of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in the drinking-water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.
Also, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a national task force to investigate the issue and make recommendations to Congress.
The AP found that drugs have been detected in the drinking-water systems of 24 metropolitan areas across the nation. It also found that many of the watersheds providing water to those systems are contaminated. Tests were conducted in the watersheds of 35 of the 62 water providers surveyed by the AP. Pharmaceuticals were detected in 28 watersheds.
John Schumacher, with the USGS, tested water samples from several creeks in Southwest Missouri for pharmaceuticals beginning in 1999. Sites included Clear Creek near Pierce City, and the upper and lower portions of Shoal Creek. Other testing involved Indian Creek, near Lanagan, and Elk River, near Tiff City.
Shoal Creek is the primary source of drinking water for the 55,000 customers of Missouri American Water Co. in Joplin and Galena, Kan. The creek also provides water to Neosho.
The tests found human and animal antibiotics in Clear Creek, which handles the wastewater from the treatment plant at Monett, and the effluent from nearby livestock and poultry operations. Clear Creek flows into Shoal Creek.
Upstream from Clear Creek, tests in 1999 and 2002 involving Shoal Creek also showed the presence of human and animal drugs. Among them were caffeine; triclosan, which is an antibiotic; acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol; and thiabendazole, a worming medicine for livestock. Also found were tylosin, a poultry antibiotic, and lincomycin, a veterinary antibiotic.
What is not clear is whether the antibiotics migrated downstream from the initial test sites to the intake valves for Joplin’s water-treatment system. Sampling for pharmaceuticals was done in the lower part of Shoal Creek by the USGS in 2002, but those findings have yet to be published.
John Ford, an environmental specialist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said the department is aware of the issue.
“For the last several years, we have been trying to track levels of various pharmaceuticals in the water,” he said.
In Clear Creek, the DNR found levels of erythromycin, an antibiotic, and lincomycin, as well as trimethoprim, an antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections.
“I think the others were found in Elk River or Indian Creek,” Ford said, referring to caffeine, aspirin, codeine and others.
“We really don’t have a lot of data from other places,” he said. “The (pharmaceuticals) they found were less that one part per billion.”
Ford said no one is sure what effect the drugs may be having on people.
“That’s a question,” he said. “I don’t think we know what that level is precisely.”
There is evidence to suggest a measure of concern.
At the same time water samples were being taken from creeks and rivers in Southwest Missouri, another branch of the USGS was taking water samples from Boulder Creek in Boulder County, Colo.
Pharmaceuticals were found downstream from a wastewater-treatment plant operated by the city of Boulder. Wildlife researchers with the University of Colorado found that fish downstream from the plant were being affected by drugs in the water, including estrogen.
Sheila Murphy, with the USGS at Boulder, said researchers found that there were more female fish than male fish downstream from the plant. They also found fish that were intersexed, meaning they had both male and female reproductive organs.
How do the drugs get into the water?
Experts put it this way: People take drugs for a variety of medical conditions. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The toilet water is treated by wastewater plants before it is released into creeks and rivers. When the water is tapped again by a water provider, it is cleansed again and piped to consumers.
But the procedure does not remove all of the drug residue. The problem is aggravated when people dispose of pills by flushing them down the toilet. The issue is further complicated by the use of antibiotics and other drugs in poultry and livestock operations. Runoff from those operations provides another source of drugs.
‘We don’t test’
Terry Timmons, public drinking water section chief for the DNR, said the state does not require water utilities to test for pharmaceuticals.
“We don’t test for those,” he said. “This is newly emerging analytical technology that lets us see things at much lower concentrations. We are finding some things at the lowest detection limits.
“But it’s not regulated by the EPA at this point, so routine testing is not required.”
Timmons said the barriers that are in place in water-treatment plants have an effect on the pharmaceuticals in drinking water. Ultraviolet radiation, chlorination and carbon filtering “help reduce some of these things,” he said.
“But there are thousands and thousands of potential contaminants out there,” he said. “The bottom line here is whether the substances at these low detection levels are harmful to humans. We know of no adverse human health effects at these levels. The jury is still out on that kind of decision.”
Timmons said the issue is “a concern that needs to be researched and studied more. It underscores the importance of protecting our water. Do not flush leftover prescription drugs down the toilet.”
He also said the issue is primarily related to surface water.
The potential problem faced by Joplin is virtually nonexistent for Carthage, which draws its water from deep wells. Only water systems that draw water from surface sources are at significant risk of contamination.
Timmons said: “People excrete some of it. They also flush unused prescriptions down the toilet. And then there are livestock and poultry operations. Antibiotics are used in those operations, too. We’re all the source.”
Christie Barnhart, spokeswoman for Missouri American Water Co. in Joplin, said the utility tests water continuously for bacteria, alkalinity, chlorine, pH and turbidity.
The company also tests quarterly for synthetics, which are man-made chemicals such as atrazine, and for inorganic chemicals, such as iron, calcium and magnesium. It also tests for volatile organic chemicals, such as petroleum derivatives and nitrates.
“We have never found more than a trace amount of those chemicals and compounds,” Barnhart said.
The company’s water-testing equipment in Joplin is not sophisticated enough to test for trace remnants of pharmaceuticals, which have been measured in quantities of parts per trillion — far below the levels of an actual medical dose.
The company’s laboratory in Belleville, Ill., could test for them if the federal government requires it do so, Barnhart said.