Danger of Pharmaceuticals in Chicago’s Water Supply

by Arabella Breck, originally posted on June 10, 2016


 “Salmon in Puget Sound would not pass a drug test,” said Debora Shore, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which operates seven wastewater treatment plants around Cook County. From Puget Sound to Chicago’s North Shore Channel, fish and other aquatic life have become victim to water contamination including contamination from improperly disposed pharmaceuticals, Shore said. The Flint water crisis caused water quality to come to the forefront of media coverage. However, while people are increasingly aware of the effects of water contaminants like lead, there are many other contaminants that can harm aquatic life and humans.

While the most documented effects of pharmaceutical contamination have been on aquatic species, there is evidence that this contamination could affect humans as well, Ventura said.

“We are finding levels of drugs in the environment that could have an effect on human development,” Ventura said. “Exposure to small amounts of these drugs can affect embryonic kidney cells as well as blood cells and breast cancer cells.”

An  ordinance  going through the Cook County Board of Commissioners recognizes and attempts to address this issue. The ordinance would make it so that pharmaceutical companies would be held responsible for the cost of safe disposal of pharmaceuticals.

A reason why this is not a widely discussed or acknowledged issue in Chicago and Cook County is because the waste stream for the area does not get into the water supply, Shore said.

The water supply comes from Lake Michigan, while the waste stream goes down to eventually the Mississippi River, however measures like this are important because the waste stream does become other people’s water supply, Shore said.

In Chicago there are sites where people can safely and properly dispose of unused pharmaceuticals in every police district, however this ordinance would expand the disposal locations in Chicago and in surrounding suburbs. In addition to expansion to more areas, it is necessary that drop off locations are in places other than police stations as it has been proven through similar programs that people are not comfortable going to police stations, Shore said.

The Cook County commissioners listed as sponsors on the ordinance are Larry Suffredin, 13th district, Richard Boykin, 1st district, Bridget Gainer, 10th district, and Peter Silvestri, 9th district.

Luis Arroyo, state representative for Illinois’ 3rd district, and John P. Daley, 11th Ward Democratic Committeeman in Chicago, are also listed as sponsors.

Although he was listed, Silvestri said in an emailed statement he was no longer a sponsor of the ordinance due to “too many unresolved issues.”

The other sponsors of the ordinance were not made available for comment.

The ordinance is currently held in committee in the Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, according to the Cook County Board of Commissioners website.

Making sure pharmaceuticals do not get into the water is also important because unlike some other contaminants, pharmaceuticals cannot be removed in a wastewater treatment plant, Shore said.

“Wastewater treatment plants are not meant to address complex chemicals, and some pharmaceuticals can get through the system and end up in water sources and even treated drinking water,” according to an analysis of pharmaceuticals and water pollution done by Clean Water Action.

Alameda County, Los Angeles, Marin County, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties in California and King County, Washington have passed similar ordinances to the one proposed in Cook County, according to the proposed Cook County ordinance.

The Alameda County ordinance was sustained in a court case in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, according to the Cook County ordinance.

The main issue faced by the ordinances that have passed in California is opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, said Ventura, who has worked as a stakeholder on the ordinances in California.

“[This program] will cost industry about a penny per medication,” Ventura said. “Threats that this will raise the price of drugs do not hold up.”

One reason why ordinances like these are more feasible is because the process of getting a contaminant regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency requires extensive research that proves a particular contaminant causes harm, said Olga Lyandres, research manager with the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“The regulatory system for chemicals in the United States is set up so that it is difficult to regulate a contaminant unless there is very strong evidence that it causes harm,” Lyandres said. “Pharmaceuticals are one class of emerging contaminants. [There are] a lot of [contaminants] that we are being exposed to and the effects are not easy to observe.”

Finding ways to regulate contaminants continues to be an important battle, said Leyla Ahmadi, a spokesperson for National Resources Defense Council, in an email interview.

“Water can be contaminated by many different pollutants, however, while some are more toxic than others, all pollutants are still harmful to human health,” Ahmadi said. “The EPA [should] take a closer look at unregulated pollutants and put more effort into cleaning up America’s water and preserved the clean water we have.”

Pharmaceuticals are just one way that the nation’s water supply is contaminated and it is important to continue water advocacy work in other areas to ensure a healthier, safer water supply in the future, said Kim LeBo, program organizer for Clean Water Action

“If we do not have clean drinking water, it impacts our health and the health of our communities,” LeBo said. “Water is really very important for maintaining life. We want to make sure that resource is protected and conserved.”

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