Health and water utility officials assured members of the COG Board of Directors that the region’s drinking water is safe and that minuscule amounts of pharmaceuticals in the water supply currently pose little risk to the public. After the discussion, the COG Board unanimously passed a resolution to improve public awareness on the issue and support efforts by local water utilities to expand testing for these chemicals, which are present in the water supplies of metropolitan regions throughout the nation.
The resolution directs COG’s Chesapeake Bay and Water Resources Policy Committee to work with area health directors and public information officers on communicating with the public on how to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals. Experts stressed that flushing unused drugs down the toilet is the worst method for disposal and suggested either throwing them in the trash or developing programs where people can return them to pharmacies. They also recommended greater investment in drinking and wastewater treatment plants to enhance their monitoring capabilities.
“If we believed there was any risk to the public, we would have turned off the water,” said Thomas P. Jacobus of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the Washington Aqueduct. He told the COG Board that the region’s three water suppliers (the Aqueduct, Fairfax Water and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission) would begin scanning the water in ways they hadn’t before.
“The amount of these chemicals [in our water supply] is like one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool or one blade of grass in a football field,” said Dr. Tee L. Giudotti of the George Washington University Medical Center. “But it is still an issue that can’t be dismissed.” According to Dr. Giudotti, the amounts of the drugs are very unlikely to produce any side effects to area residents. He said the drugs pose a greater threat to the Potomac ecosystem rather than humans because lower levels of the chemicals can have an effect on animals. Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have found that these chemicals have caused fish in the Potomac River—and river systems across the nation—to develop both male and female reproductive parts.
Last month, news stories reported that certain drugs, like antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication and caffeine, are present in very small amounts in the region’s water supply. Health experts said they had long suspected that the drugs were getting in the water—either by being flushed down the toilet or passing through area residents—but only with recent technological advancements were scientists able to measure their levels.