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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Something in the water

After an Associated Press investigation of several U.S. water systems found drugs in the water, Springfield got our lake tested. (SJ-R: Lake water has traces of drugs; But CWLP officials say levels of nine contaminants are low.)

The analysis by Underwriters Laboratories found nicotine; cotinine, a nicotine byproduct; a medicine that treats seizures and bipolar disorder; insect repellent; and a drug to treat high cholesterol.
Trace amounts of nine drugs those five plus four others were found in the raw, untreated water of Lake Springfield.

City officials tell us these drug levels are harmless to our health. Good to know. I thought this paragraph was particularly interesting:

The AP investigation found trace amounts of drugs in the water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas. Trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals can make their way into water supplies after humans take medicine and excrete part of it into their toilets, according to the AP.

Toilets. I had no idea. See, I always believed that our toilet water, or any water that leaves our homes and businesses, goes to the waste water treatment plant, which is no where near the lake. The article does not specifically address how the water from our toilets ends up in our drinking water supply.

Link to map of Lake Springfield.

Posted by Marie at April 29, 2008 11:43 PM


Well, to paraphrase the timeless question, When you flush something away, where is "away"? I find this in one version of the AP story (the one on the MSNBC site):

"People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residue."

In other words, if you're getting your water from some local source, there's a decent chance that some pharmaceutical-bearing effluent will be discharged into it. I see from my brief researches that Lake Springfield captures water flowing from Sugar Creek. It sounds like a beautiful creek, but I'm sure it would be uncomfortably informative to take a day and travel along its watershed to see what might be going into it (from septic tanks and farms, etc.) and thus into the lake. (Out where I live, San Francisco and other cities have created a myth that their water comes from crystalline pure Sierra Nevada snows. It's true that much of the water flows down from the high country; what the myth overlooks is that "crystalline purity" is an ideal condition that, if it ever existed (grizzly bears had to crap somewhere), we've pretty much fixed.

Back to Springfield: EPA documents show that the sanitary district discharges its treated effluent at several "outfall" points along Spring Creek, Town Branch, and the Sangamon River. I'm not familiar with the area, but I'm sure the waters are all downstream (they flow away) from town; of course, the discharge points are also upstream from someone else (people along the Illinois River were long ago dismayed to find out they were downstream from Chicago when the city finished its big sanitary river-reversal project in the early 20th century; Chicago's effluent wiped out one of the richest freshwater fisheries in the United States). It's true that Springfield (and even Chicago) treats its sewage before dispensing it into the world, but the product is less than potable and the available technology to remove unwanted trace chemicals like pharmaceuticals is very expensive (one county out here has found this out because they're experimenting with purifying treated sewage as drinking water).

So bottom line: Someone downstream gets your pharmaceuticals, and you get someone else's from upstream. (Cue Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World.")

Posted by: Dan at April 30, 2008 11:27 AM

Dan, your research abilities never cease to amaze me. Thanks for the great information.

Posted by: Marie at May 1, 2008 12:04 AM