Drinking Water: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Local residents served by the Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) can drink water without worry, despite reports of trace amounts of drugs found in Ohio River water. The problem, however, is more

Local residents served by the Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) can drink water without worry, despite reports of trace amounts of drugs found in Ohio River water. The problem, however, is more complex than that and is both national and global. The solution has more to do with changing the way drugs are disposed of than it does with cleaning up water at treatment facilities.

"Everything we use — detergents, hormone replacement drugs — eventually goes down the sink or toilet and into our sewage treatment plants," says Conrad Volz, scientific director for the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh. The greatest potential problems come from hormones, he says.

Volz has led research on the effects of estrogen in the Pennsylvania water supply, which is upstream of Cincinnati's water supply. Estrogen from discarded birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy drugs and estrogen-like chemicals in laundry detergent are a danger to humans and animals, he says.

Volz's research has shown that these chemicals might cause breast cancer and developmental disorders in the testes of male fetuses.

"No one knows whether or not there are effects at such low levels," Volz admits. But neither are there good models to provide insight as to the cumulative effects of these trace pollutants, which are typically measured in parts per trillion.

According to GCWW Director David Rager, the traces of drugs found locally — which include ibuprofen, estrogen and anti-bacterial drugs — are found between 2 and 12 parts per trillion.

"We test for a lot of things that may not be regulated," Rager says.

Volz says that there's evidence of increasing incidences of intersex fish around the world due to drug-polluted waterways. These are fish that have both male and female sex characteristics that have been affected by hormones in the water.

"There is no water treatment system on the face of this Earth that can guarantee they will be removing all these chemicals," Volz says.

Some but not all of the drugs can be removed at sewage treatment plants, he says, adding that the best water treatment facilities can do is to help manage this emerging issue. That might make the water you're drinking today safe, but it doesn't clean up our watersheds. The real solution is to stop discarding drugs in ways that make them end up in the water supply, he says.

Rager says the good news for Cincinnatians is that our water has some of the best filtration technology in the country. Deep-bed carbon filters are used to clean up local drinking water. It takes the water 20 minutes to move through nearly 12 feet of carbon, effectively eliminating the problem and bringing the levels close to zero — at least to levels lower than are able to be detected.

Testing for these drugs is something GCWW has opted to do even though it isn't mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rager says GCWW has been testing for drugs for more than 15 years and expects that the EPA will one day require this sort of testing.

Volz recommends that everyone use home filtration systems for an additional layer of protection.

"There is no technical answer," he says. "It may be only when we ban certain chemicals and stop throwing them into the water."


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