This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleFor most of the U.S., access to clean drinking water is as easy as turning on the faucet. In fact, a lot of hard work has gone into making sure our waterways are healthy and the water we drink is safe. Forty years ago, Congress passed Safe Drinking Water Act and since then EPA has contributed an incredibly vast amount of research to protecting human health by safeguarding the nation’s public drinking water supply—you might say it’s an ocean’s worth.

We and others highlighted a lot of water-related EPA research this past week. And an EPA-grantee was named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” awardee! Below is this week’s “EPA research recap.”

  • Prescription for Trouble? Studying Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater.
    Due to human excretion and people flushing unused pills, pharmaceuticals can end up in the wastewater stream, presenting a challenge to the nation’s wastewater treatment plants. EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Researchers designed a model to estimate potential concentrations of active pharmaceuticals in treated wastewater. Read more.
  • Tri, Tri, Tri Again for Clean Water
    Recently, the Washington DC area experienced storms and heavy rainfall that caused a combined sewer overflow and sent a mixture of sewage and stormwater into the Potomac River. This caused the swim portion of the Nation’s Triathlon to be canceled due to unsafe water quality. EPA works to promote green infrastructure practices to help minimize and prevent stormwater events that can threaten public health, all while protecting the quality of rivers, streams, and lakes. Read more.
  • EPA engineer led effort to reduce wastewater pollution along the Arizona-Mexican border
    Raw and partially treated sewage has flowed persistently for years across the border from Nogales, Mexico into neighboring Nogales, Arizona. Through a decade of hard work, Thomas Konner, an EPA engineer, was instrumental in leading the U.S. effort to upgrade the wastewater infrastructure along the border and greatly improve the water quality and the environment. Read more.
  • Green Island and the Hyporheic Zone: Why Restoration matters
    Large river floodplains present diverse benefits to communities, yet management strategies often fail to consider the broad suite of ecosystem services provided by these systems. EPA is evaluating the benefits associated with restoring large river floodplains, specifically levee setback and revetment removal. This effort will provide scientific support for community-based environmental decision making and support restoration efforts. Read more.
  • Detection of Silver Nanoparticles in Vadose Zone Environments
    Use of nanoparticles is quickly increasing within the global marketplace as a result of their beneficial use in science, medicine, engineering and technology.However, very little is known about the effects that the increased and widespread use could have on the environment. EPA and Oklahoma State University have partnered to research and determine the effects. Read more.
  • EPA Grantee Tami Bond Named 2014 MacArthur Fellow
    The University of Illinois professor did a comprehensive study of how human-produced soot (black carbon) is affecting the atmosphere, illuminating how it is one of the leading contributors to climate change and standardizing how researchers measure and describe it. Bond received her first EPA “Science to Achieve Results” (STAR) grant in 2003, and currently has two other projects supported by the program. Read more.

Looking forward, next week is “Climate Action Week” and we’ll be featuring how EPA researchers are working to support taking action on climate change.

If you have any comments or questions about what I share or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section!

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick is a member of the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Prescription for Trouble? Studying Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater.

By Marguerite Huber

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. FDA.

Approximately 1,800 drugs are approved for prescription use in the United States. Have you ever thought of what happens to all those drugs once they have left you (or your medicine cabinet)? Due to human excretion and people flushing unused pills, these pharmaceuticals can end up in the wastewater stream, presenting a challenge to the nation’s wastewater treatment plants.

To estimate potential pharmaceutical concentrations in wastewater, EPA scientists conducted a survey of wastewater effluent from 50 large U.S. municipal wastewater treatment plants between January and April 2011. They then used the data to evaluate an EPA model designed to estimate potential concentrations of active pharmaceuticals in treated wastewater.

The model generates preliminary estimates of associated risks, and provides a basis for prioritizing the pharmaceuticals that generate the greatest concern for future research efforts.

EPA scientists used pharmaceutical marketing data to choose the 56 pharmaceuticals with the highest number of minimum daily dose equivalents dispensed in the U.S. each year. You may recognize acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and hydrocortisone from the list.

The 50 wastewater treatment plants were chosen based on a number of factors, but together they produce about six billion gallons of treated wastewater a day that is released into rivers and streams. In all, these facilities serve more than 46 million people.

The researchers then analyzed treated wastewater samples from the selected plants to determine the concentrations of the 50 high-priority active pharmaceutical ingredients they identified from the marketing data.

Overall, the survey found low concentrations of pharmaceuticals present in every water sample the researchers analyzed.

Based on the screening data, the researchers estimated that risks were low for both healthy adults and aquatic life from pharmaceutical exposure in wastewater effluent for most drugs. They also found that even under the extreme scenario of someone consuming half a gallon of treated wastewater per day over the course of a year, they would get the equivalent of less than a daily dose of any pharmaceutical currently in use. For most pharmaceuticals, it would be less than one daily dose over the course of a lifetime.

Additionally, based on what the survey revealed about pharmaceuticals in wastewater effluent, the researchers determined that risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing in aquatic environments is low.

Mitchell Kostich, an EPA Scientist who worked on the study, said Agency researchers plan to now focus on the handful of pharmaceuticals that are most frequently used, and appear at levels for which risks to aquatic life cannot be ruled out. With the help of the model and additional data, they expect to be able to predict the maximum wastewater concentrations of any pharmaceutical in current use.

Interested in more about this topic? Join our Water Research Webinar: Pharmaceutical Residues in Municipal Wastewater on Wednesday, September 24th from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (EDT), and check out our previous post, A Prescription for a Healthier Environment!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.