Are there pharmaceuticals in my drinking water?

Last year Associated Press news reports shed some light on the widespread concern that medications are being detected in the drinking water of our nation’s largest cities. Major sources of pharmaceuticals in waterways are direct discharges from wastewater facilities and septic systems – either from people flushing unused medications down the toilet or from unabsorbed drugs being excreted from the human body.

Recently the Portland Water District tested for 19 common pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Preliminary results detected trace amounts of three compounds - ibuprofen, triclosan (hand sanitizer), and a stain repellent. Because quantities detected were so minute, additional tests are required to confirm the results. To put the results into perspective, a person would need to drink 32 million 16-ounce glasses of water to get the equivalent of one ibuprofen tablet. Confirmation results should be available in a month or so.

The Portland Water District’s water meets all federal and state standards. Currently there are no requirements for drug testing and, to date, research has not demonstrated a negative impact on human health from low levels reported in drinking water.

The Portland Water District is disappointed, although not entirely shocked, with the preliminary findings. Sebago Lake attracts thousands of visitors annually and is surrounded by homes (2600 septic systems). Triclosan (antibacterial) and perfluoro octanesulfonate (stain repellent) are so pervasive in the environment that the stain repellent is found at low levels in the blood of the general U.S. population, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The most effective way to rid Sebago Lake of chemicals, including medications, is to use them sparingly and keep them out of septic systems. Septic systems are not designed to remove chemicals. PWD continues to urge area residents to only flush toilet paper and human waste down the toilet.

Regardless of confirmation results, the Portland Water District plans to boost its educational efforts about the dangers of flushing medications and other toxic chemicals and asks for the community support in eliminating the problem.