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Drug Wastes Pollute Waterways

Mar 13, 2002 | Washington Post

The first nationwide study of pharmaceutical pollution of rivers and streams offers an unsettling picture of waterways contaminated with antibiotics, steroids, synthetic hormones and other commonly used drugs.

Of the 139 streams analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey in 30 states -- including Maryland and Virginia -- about 80 percent contained trace amounts of contaminants that are routinely discharged into the water in human and livestock waste and chemical plant refuse.

Seven or more chemical compounds were found in half the streams sampled and 10 or more compounds were found in a third of the streams; a single water sample contained as many as 38 chemicals.

The USGS study, which will be published in today's issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, stresses that in many cases the measured concentration of contaminants such as painkillers, insect repellent, caffeine and fire retardants was low -- less than 1 part per billion -- and rarely exceeded federal standards for drinking water.

But many of the chemical compounds detected are not covered by drinking-water standards or government health advisories, and little is known about how the interaction of those chemicals can affect humans, animals and the environment.

"Protecting the integrity of our water resources is one of the most essential environmental issues of the 21st Century," the report states. "Little is known about the potential interactive effects . . . that may occur from complex mixtures of [waste contaminants] in the environment."

In many ways, water quality mirrors societal behavior and medical practices: Antibiotics and other prescription and nonprescription drugs and personal care products used widely by Americans inevitably turn up in wastewater; manufacturers and chemical plants legally dump thousands of tons of compounds into streams and rivers, and the waste of livestock treated with veterinary pharmaceuticals flows into streams.

The study, conducted in 1999 and 2000, surveyed the occurrence of 95 pharmaceuticals, hormones and other organic waste in streams across the country. The authors said the compounds were selected because they enter the environment through common wastewater pathways in large quantities and may have human or environmental health implications.

The sampling technique focused on streams most susceptible to contamination, downstream from large urban areas -- including New York, Boston, Chicago and Denver -- or industrial plants or livestock yards. In the Washington, D.C., region, scientists sampled water from the Pocomoke River and Nassawango Creek near Snow Hill, both on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and Christians Creek near Jolivue, Va.

"We're not talking about rampant dumping," said a U.S. Geological Survey official. "We're looking at the effect of normal existing usage for these different chemicals."

The study was not designed to compare the water quality of different streams, but to create a baseline for future study by scientists of the persistence and migration patterns of the compounds and their potential impact on humans and the environment, according to USGS officials.

Environmentalists say that while water quality has vastly improved since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the government fell far short of the congressional goal of creating "fishable and swimmable" waters nationwide by 1983. Moreover, they said, there are scores of potentially harmful chemical compounds in the water that can accumulate in humans and animals, compounds that are not governed by the law, which was last reauthorized in 1987.

"On the one hand, we have eliminated the smelly, rotting sewage floating in the Potomac River and other streams that [former first lady] Lady Bird Johnson talked about," said Rick Hind, the legislative director of Greenpeace USA's toxics campaign. "But the poisons unseen continue to fester in the water, animal life and sediments of all of our rivers and lakes."

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