Washington — Scientists have been warning us about the "next generation" of water pollutants, known collectively as emerging contaminants (ECs). The universe of potential contaminations is enormous because it includes many of the estimated 30 million man-made compounds in existence. Only a handful of these compounds have been thoroughly evaluated to determine their potential effects on fish, however.
Water quality and fish pathology experts in the United States and other countries are beginning to focus on a comparatively small subset of ECs known as "pharmaceuticals and personal care products" (PPCPs). These compounds include over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances and cosmetics.
PPCPs are pervasive in the nation's rivers and streams. In 1999 and 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tested waters in 139 rivers and streams in 30 states for their presence. In 2002, the agency reported that 80 percent of the waterways sampled contained at least trace amounts. More recent studies have reinforced the disturbing conclusion that they are almost universally present across the United States.
Thus far, the most widely reported negative effect of PPCPs on fish has been the so-called "feminization" of male bass. But female fish may also be vulnerable. A study conducted downstream from a Florida paper mill found that female mosquito fish had developed male reproductive features. This "masculinization" phenomenon was seemingly caused by still-unidentified chemicals discharged from the mill.
Bass and other fish species are especially vulnerable to the effects of PPCP contamination. "Fish … are exposed continuously to contaminants in water throughout their lives, including the sensitive developmental stages," explained Scott Stoner of the New York Department of Environmental Control.
The Bush administration recently organized a federal interagency working group on PPCPs. Co-chaired by the EPA, the FDA and the USGS, the group has been directed to develop a research strategy. The EPA has an ongoing research project to look for traces of 150 PPCPs, pesticides, hormones and steroids in wastewater from various parts of the country. This project is scheduled for completion in 2009. Several other EPA-sponsored research efforts are underway as well. Ultimately, the agency hopes to develop water quality evaluation methodologies and criteria which will permit the formulation of PPCP limits to protect aquatic life.
The nation's two most populous states, California and New York, are involved in the research activities and are pursuing their own initiatives to limit PPCP contamination of their waters.
In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to create the California Integrated Waste Management Board. The board is charged with developing model programs to allow the collection of unused pharmaceuticals by drugstores and proposing a long-term PPCP management solution to the California Legislature.
In New York, the Don't Flush Your Drugs campaign is educating consumers about how to safely dispose of unused drugs along with their household garbage.
"As a precautionary measure, programs to divert pharmaceuticals from our wastewater stream are an essential part of the solution," declared Stoner. "In the longer term, improved methods of treating wastewater will be needed."
Recent estimates indicate it could cost more than $300 billion to upgrade all existing U.S. water treatment facilities with state-of-the-art technology. But experts point out that even the most advanced facilities are not capable of effectively neutralizing PPCPs in their discharged water.
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