Columbia is taking steps to examine pharmaceuticals in drinking water

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 | 4:59 p.m. CDT; updated 4:52 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Columbia is joining cities around the country by testing its drinking water for pharmaceuticals and making its citizens more aware of proper disposal of unwanted medications.

The first tests of the city water supply from wells in the Missouri River bottoms near McBaine are completed, and the city is preparing to roll out an education campaign on pharmaceuticals and their potential for environmental contamination.

Proper disposal of pharmaceuticals

The city’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility accepts medications and other hazardous products from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays from April through November. The facility is located at 1313 Lakeview Drive, off of Business Loop 70 near the Municipal Power Plant. Richard Wieman, the solid waste utility manager, advised people to come by from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. because the earlier hours tend to be more crowded. For those unable to dispose of their pharmaceuticals at the waste facility, the city suggests the following steps: Keep products in their original container. Remove label or conceal information with a permanent marker. To make the drug unusable, add a small amount of water to a solid drug and recap the container. For liquids, add some absorbent material such as cat litter, sawdust or flour. Place the container in another container or a heavy bag. Place item in the trash.

The initiatives follow an investigation by The Associated Press, published on March 10, that found an assortment of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones ­— in drinking water supplies for at least 41 million Americans.

Barry Kirchhoff, superintendent of the city’s water treatment plant at McBaine, said the testing was not required, “but just knowing that the interest in the area has been growing for a period of time, we just figured it would probably be a reasonable thing to do.”

With public interest growing, Kirchhoff said, the city modified its water testing agreement with the U.S. Geological Survey to test for pharmaceuticals.

Kirchhoff said city officials had considered such testing before the AP investigation.

“The science has kind of found that they are there,” Kirchhoff said. “But the real discussion is, ‘What is the significance?’”

The U.S. Geological Survey has completed testing 17 one-liter samples of Columbia’s water supply for pharmaceuticals. Brenda Smith, hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the agency still needs to complete its peer review process and data analysis. A report won’t be finished until later this year, she said.

Michael Mac, director of the U.S. Geological Survey Columbia Environmental Research Center on New Haven Road, said pharmaceuticals infiltrate drinking water a couple of ways: excretory waste in the sewage system and the flushing of medications down the toilet.

Hormones in birth control pills have been found in water, possibly affecting fish and other aquatic organisms, Mac said, adding he has witnessed male fish carrying eggs and developing other female characteristics.

“Hormones can have a significant impact at very low concentrations,” Mac said. “We have a number of chemicals that are thought of having hormone-like action at very low doses.”

How common chemicals, such as ibuprofen and cholesterol, affect fish and wildlife remains unknown.

“We do know we can find them,” Mac said. “We don’t really know what they do.”

Research also remains unclear on the effects pharmaceuticals in drinking water can have on humans, said Connie Kacprowicz, spokeswoman for the city Water and Light Department.

Columbia’s formal educational efforts are scheduled to begin May 1.

Kacprowicz said the Water and Light Department plans to utilize its City Source newsletter, Web site and government access channel, Mediacom channel 13, to explain how to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals, preferably at the city’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility.

“We want to try and educate the public on what’s acceptable,” Kacprowicz said.

Richard Wieman, solid waste utility manager for the city, said the emphasis is on keeping unused and unwanted pharmaceuticals out of the sewage system. “We hope people will not flush it down the toilet or put it in any other storm sewer or anything like that,” he said.

Kirchhoff said the city’s next moves will depend on the U.S. Geological Survey’s report.

“That answer’s going to depend on what’s there and how you can remove it if it needs to be removed,” he said. “It’s something we’ll work on once we see the results.”

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