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Pharmaceutical Pollution in the Great Lakes

Photo courtesy of Think Progress Health

Pharmaceutical and personal care product (PPCP) pollution is an emerging concern within the Great Lakes basin. Increased use combined with increased awareness of health impacts stemming from chemical exposure have brought this issue into focus.

When we take medications, the cells in our body utilize the molecules of the medicine. Once the necessary biochemical reactions are complete, the molecules re-enter the blood stream and are broken down further and then excreted. Personal care products such as soaps, make-up, aftershave and deodorant are applied and washed down the drain after a shower. These drains then take our wastewater to a water treatment facility before releasing it back into our water supply.

Current technologies vary widely in different plants but membranes, lagoons and activated sludge are some of the ways these molecules can be removed from the waste water. These techniques, while sufficient, do not remove 100 percent of the PPCP chemicals. In addition, many communities have combined storm-sewer systems, which during large storm events dump untreated waste water into our lakes.

To date, limited research has been done to evaluate the long-term ecological and human health impacts of PPCP pollution. In 2002, the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) conducted the first water quality study looking only at the presence of pharmaceuticals and hormones in rivers and streams. Of the 139 streams sampled, in 30 states, 80 percent of the streams detected organic wastewater contaminants (OWC). This study focused on streams that were susceptible to OWC contamination, sites near urban areas or livestock operations. The prevalence of these pollutants in the environment sparked scientific interest and there has been a call for more research.

In 2011, the International Joint Commission (IJC) released a report that addressed the emergence of potential chemicals of concern. A total of 1,448 municipal wastewater treatment plants discharge 4.8 billion gallons of treated wastewater into the Great Lakes basin each day. In addition to these municipal systems there are millions of private septic systems, sewer overflows, agricultural runoff and industrial discharges that remain untreated. The effectiveness of treatment depends on the type of treatment that takes place in the plant as well as what chemicals are present. Caffeine, acetaminophen, and estriol, some of the most common chemicals, had at least a 75 percent removal rate. Other studies have found biological degradation to be one of the most effective ways to remove these chemicals.

Photo courtesy of IBN Live

The quality of the water that is treated (or untreated) and returned to the lakes is important for the long term quality of the Great Lakes, particularly because of the long residence times for the Great Lakes. Note: Residence time is defined as the amount of time that water spends in a particular lake. The Great Lakes have retentions times ranging from 2.6 years (Lake Erie) to 191 years (Lake Superior). Residence time refers specifically to how long it takes for water to move through the lake, but that amount of time also relates to how long contaminants remain in the system.

While these studies are immensely important to furthering our understanding of the impacts of PPCP pollution, the existing research is one-dimensional, focusing on effects in the context of only one discipline (chemistry, biology, ecology etc.). Another drawback is the length of the existing studies; currently only short-term, low-dose exposure has been evaluated. In order for us to truly understand the impacts of these chemicals, we need long-term, low-dose exposure analysis from a multi-disciplinary approach. This is particularly relevant to pharmaceuticals, which are often designed to be utilized in low- doses over long periods of time.

By combining efforts across agencies, resources will be maximized and we will learn more about the impacts of PPCP pollution and policy changes will occur. Right now, the federal government has regulated the allowable concentrations of over 100 chemical contaminates in drinking water, but pharmaceuticals and personal care products have not yet been regulated due to the unknown consequences of prolonged exposure.

Emily Shaw, Contributing Writer

Learn more with these resources:

USGS Study

Great Lakes Echo, Pharmaceutical Compounds Contaminate the Great LakesĀ 

IJC Study

Alliance for the Great Lakes, Drugs in Drinking Water: New Report Explores Emerging Great Lakes Threat, Solutions

Alliance for the Great Lakes Study


New York Times, Drugs Are In the Water. Does It Matter?

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