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Drugs in our drinking water?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: March 13, 2008 1:15 a.m.
Updated: May 14, 2008 5:03 a.m.
Water quality has been a concern for quite some time in California and in our community. As our population increases and we improve our technological capability to detect contaminants, water providers and water consumers are made ever more aware of real and potential new problems.

The 1997 discovery of ammonium perchlorate pollution in several of the Santa Clarita Valley's drinking water wells was a wake-up call for our community. Perchlorate is a byproduct of the manufacture of rocket fuel and ordnances and is unfortunately often prevalent in groundwater near facilities that used to manufacture or use these products. Such facilities include the Whittiker Bermite property in our valley, Aerojet in the San Gabriel Valley and Sacramento areas, and Rocketdyne in Woodland Hills.

Perchlorate affects the thyroid gland, causing it to reduce the production of thyroxin. The concern was that a malfunction of this gland could cause retardation in small children and fetuses.

Those local wells were immediately shut down, although that water has continued to be counted as available when development approvals are considered, a policy to which SCOPE and the Sierra Club strongly object.

But the reason that this pollution was not detected earlier was simply that the tests were not sophisticated enough to detect the contaminant in small quantities. Now tests are so sensitive that they can and do find all sorts of chemicals in our water that we didn't know were there before, including household medicines such as aspirin and prescription drugs.

Concern over the health of our ground water basins caused Assemblywoman Carol Liu to bring legislation to investigate this issue. When her AB599 became law in 2001, it funded a partnership between the U.S. Geologic Survey and local participating water agencies to investigate the health of California's ground water basins. The object was not only to obtain knowledge about the health and safety of this important supply but also to identify emerging problem areas and address them before they become critical.

Since then, a debate has raged about how much and when this information should be disclosed to the public.

Wow, you might say. I want to know everything. Well, really, the public can find out the results of the tests because it is all public information. But a person would have to know about it to ask for it.

Water agencies have been reluctant to just uncatagorically release results. This is because, with the new sensitive testing techniques, very, very small quantities of chemicals and drugs can now be detected. No health standards have been set for most of these chemicals, including medicines, so no one knows whether such drugs and chemicals would affect humans or not. Water agencies were worried that releasing information about chemicals and medicines in extremely low level quantities, such as a part per billion or part per trillion, would unnecessarily frighten people about their water supply.

Many people, including myself, did not know that our local water agencies were participating in the State "Groundwater Assessment and Monitoring Program," "GAMA" for short. Are the water agencies going too far in their efforts not to frighten people?

I guess I understand both sides. As a member of the public, I want to be informed, but I also don't think it helps to unnecessarily concern people. I do think that most folks want to be informed.

So when our water agencies say our drinking water is safe, I am happy to hear it. I was, however, startled to find out that we were participating in this program and that I didn't know about either the program or that results had been released.

It seems that we, like many other communities, have aspirin, caffeine and other common drugs and medicines in our ground water. Apparently our water agencies did not test for some of the other pharmaceuticals, so we don't know if they are there or not.

How did those chemicals get there? Our tertiary (three-stage treatment) recycled water is returned to the Santa Clara River from the Saugus treatment plant and from the Valencia treatment plant.

Although the treatment makes the water supposedly clean enough to drink, it doesn't remove very minute constituents such as small quantities of medications. Water wells then pump water out of the ground - water that is recharged by the Santa Clara River. Water is tested regularly at the well head to ensure its safety.

So discarded medicines flushed down the toilet by residents or not absorbed by our bodies when we take them can and do show up in very small quantities in our drinking water.

As I said earlier, the purpose of the GAMA program was to identify "emerging" issues and try to address them before they become a problem. So GAMA discovered pharmaceuticals in our water.

Now the questions for water agencies and other public officials are: "What do we do about it? Where are these medications coming from? Will they affect humans in such small amounts? What about sensitive people, such as children or those with severe allergic reactions? Do these medications interact with other medications? Will they affect wildlife (our Santa Clara River is home to a wide variety of rare animals, birds and fish that depend on the water in the river just as we do)? Does a small quantity of a medication that doesn't hurt a human hurt the breeding cycle of, say, one of our own rare amphibians? How can we reduce and/or eliminate these pharmaceuticals from entering our water supplies, if we need to?

Upon seeing news articles on this subject, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., immediately called for a panel to address these questions.

To me, that makes the GAMA program a huge success. It will help us all get ahead of the curve on making sure our drinking water supplies continue to be safe and that our medicines don't end up hurting ourselves or the other creatures with which we share our planet.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own view and not necessarily that of The Signal.


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