By Anne Stanton
Are you feeling peppy for no good reason these days? Chances are theres
caffeine in your drinking water. Not to mention trace amounts of hormones,
acetaminophen (Tylenol), herbicides, anxiety medications and antibiotics
(to name a few) that are routinely flushed down the drain and end up
coming back out of your tap.
Toxins in our drinking water have long been a concern, even locally.
Back in 1978, three University of Washington students began a study on
herring gulls on Bellows Island near Northport and two other Great Lakes
islands. The eight-year study documented an unusual number of female gulls
pairing up to care for mostly infertile eggs.
The study concluded there were too few males in the colony so the females
were doing what they could.
One of the studys authors, Gary Shugart, was a former student of Bill
Scharf at Northwestern Michigan College.
When theres a shortage of males, there is a changing in gender of the
eggs or something working against the males, said Scharf, who has since
retired. If you take a paper published in 1966 by a fellow named Jim
Ludwig, and Jim is still around, still living, he found high
concentrations of DDD and DDE, chlorinated compounds used in pesticides,
in the eggs near Northport.
That doesnt necessarily mean those chemicals, banned in 1972, were
applied locally; they could have traveled here by water or air. The gulls
reproductive abilities were believed to have been damaged through a
process called bio-magnification; essentially they ate a bunch of smaller
organisms with concentrated toxins.
HORMONES IN THE WATER
Scharf still laughs about the jokes made on nighttime TV about the
same-sex gulls. But he is very serious when talking about a new and
emerging concern: estrogen, a female hormone, and other chemicals that act
as hormone disruptors. Since some chemicals are biological messengers,
incredibly tiny amounts can severely disrupt an animals reproductive
development and are feminizing pockets of animals around the world.
For the past five or six years, Scharf has been collecting eggs at Bellows
Island and sending them to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The
findings are unpublished at this point, but Scharf believes that studies
like these are vital; wildlife is a sentinel to what may happen to humans.
A dramatic concern is human infertility. In the last 50 years, the average
sperm count in healthy men worldwide has dropped by half, and scientists
suspect that environmental pollution is a contributor, according to a
landmark 1990 Danish study.
A 2008 report, published by the charity ChemTrust, summarized 250
scientific studies around the world. It showed a wide range of common
chemicals is feminizing males, including snapping turtles around the Great
Lakes, hemaphrodite polar bears with both sex organs, and two-thirds of
white-tailed deer in Montana born with genital abnormalities, Geoffrey
Lean reported in The Independent.
The issue of chemicals -- with thousands of them untested for safety and
their impact on mammals -- is a huge and complex question, said Chris
Grobbel, a Traverse City-based environmental consultant.
We have had the alarm rung that the most vulnerable species in the fresh
water systems are evidencing problems. Its a great unknown at what level
this impacts humans, he said. There are many, many ways to be exposed.
From my perspective, the science has not caught up with the ability to
answer the question: What does this mean for humans?
Chemical exposure comes from everywherefor kids, its often inhaling dust
from contaminated soils. For adults, its largely through eating food and
drinking water. Fetuses are vulnerable because some chemicals cross the
placental barrier or are consumed through mothers milk, Grobbel said.
One concern has focused on medical waste in the water. Only about 55% of
prescription medicine thats purchased is actually taken, and much of the
excess gets flushed or poured down the drain, according to 2007 data
compiled by the Teleosis Institute in California. The amount that is
excreted by humans in the form of diarrhea, urine, and throwing up is
poorly understood, according to an Alliance for the Great Lakes report.
Only recently have tests become refined enough to even identify trace
amounts of pharmaceuticals in the water. Among them are phthalates
(pronounced thalates), a plastic softener used to make kids toys,
cosmetics, food wrapping, and flame retardants. Its blamed as a gender
bender in mammals, along with bisphenol A, which is used to make hard
plastics, including baby bottles. A recent study shows that boys born to
mothers who use hair spray (which contain phthalates) are more likely to
show signs of feminization.
The defects showing up in boys are myriad and most have to do with their
penisesmicro-penises, undescended testes, hidden penises, the opening of
the urethra at the top or on the bottom of the penis. Since 1992, there
have been 16,801 boys in the state of Michigan thus afflicted, according
to the most recent Birth Defects by Detailed Diagnosis government report.
The state also tracks total number of birth defects, and, again boys take
it on the chin, with 80,350 boys suffering from birth defects compared to
51,865 girls in the years 1997 to 2007. Drawing conclusions is impossible
since pollution is just one of many causes of birth defects.
Another marker: the number of boys born. The historic rate of boys to
girls is 106 boys to 100 girls. In some places in the world, the number is
starting to inch down. In Michigan, the rate over the last seven years has
averaged 104.8 boys to 100 girls. In Lake County, one of the states
poorest counties, the birth rate of girls to boys was almost exactly
equal, according to State of Michigan statistics.
Then there is the First Nation community near Sarnia, a highly
industrialized city in Ontario, where two girls are born for every boy,
according to a 2005 report, Declining Sex Ratio in a First Nation
New findings from researchers confirm that more girls than boys are born
in some Canadian communities. The cause of the phenomenon is airborne
pollutants called dioxins that can alter normal sex ratios, even when the
source of the pollution is kilometers away, wrote Terri Hansen,
Environment and Science reporter.
As tests have become more sensitive to detect parts per trillion, its
been possible to detect the presence of pharmaceuticals in water. The
first national scale examination of contaminants in the water occurred in
2002 with a U.S. Geological Survey.
The disturbing results showed a broad range of chemicals occurring in
mixtures at low concentrations in residential, industrial and agricultural
wastewaters. The chemicals detected included human and veterinary drugs,
natural and synthetic hormones, detergent metabolites, plasticizers,
insecticides and fire retardants. One or more of these chemicals were
found in 80% of the streams sampled. Half of the streams contained seven
or more of these chemicals, wrote authors of Protecting the Great Lakes
from Pharmaceutical Pollution (2010, Alliance for the Great Lakes).
Trying to quantify the harm of chemicals and the interaction of tens of
thousands of chemicals is mind- bending and expensive. Thats why its
been difficult to find funding for water testing, said Dendra Best, who
leads Wastewater Education, a Northwest Michigan nonprofit, which focuses
on this issue
The issue of testing is really complex. What should we test for? When and
under what conditions? The real issue is cost and frequency. One set of
tests can run $700 per sample run, and for it to provide any meaningful
data, it has to be repeated at regular intervals under similar conditions
at many sites together with a control site. A spike in antibiotics in one
test may be totally absent in another, Best said.
With thousands of compounds that may or may not be present at any given
time, testing has to be a carefully thought out process. One of serious
concern would be atrazene, a known endocrine disrupter, she said.
The nonprofit has applied for a two-year grant, which may include Grand
Best believes that instead of testing the water, long-term study of fish
tissue and birds would provide more definitive data of toxic accumulation.
Her group emphasizes education, such as urging yearly well testing and
safe disposal of pharmaceutical drugs.
DONT FLUSH IT AWAY
Except for a class of highly toxic medicinesphysotigmine, warfarin, and
nine chemotherapy drugsthere is little state or federal regulation over
the disposal of pharmaceutical waste. In response to growing scientific
evidence, the EPA recently added one antibiotic and nine hormones used in
hormone replacement therapy and birth control pills to its regulated list.
The bad news is that its prohibitively expensive for waste water
treatment plants to test for pharmaceuticals, though some do, and they are
not designed to filter them out. A home water filter doesnt work on
these drugs either.
The stuff is going into West Bay and were pulling our drinking water out
of East Bay, but were not removing it and were not treating it going
out, Grobbel said. We can be pretty well assured were being exposed to
it, but at extremely low levels. We are putting stuff into our bodies at
levels that nature has never seen before, kind of chugging along like
theres no impact. We dont know if there is or isnt, but nature,
although shes whispering, is telling us to pay attention.
The single most effective way to make an individual difference is to never
flush or pour down medications down the drain. The Environmental
Protection Agency actually advises organizations to flush controlled
medicines, such as Oxycotin, so they wont get into the wrong hands. But
now that advice is changing, with directions from the state Department of
Natural Resources and Environment advising people to mix painkillers with
kitty litter or coffee grounds and throw it away. Its vital to dry it out
before disposal so it doesnt leach out of the landfill, Grobbel said.
There have been a few organized efforts to collect pharmaceuticals,
Munson Medical Center and Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey are
among 14 Michigan hospitals that are piloting a program to dispose and
collect all unused and expired medications for future incineration.
Janis Russell, owner of Home Instead senior care, organized a
collection effort that involved the Grand Traverse County Sheriffs
Department at the Holiday Inn last year. In a five-hour time period we
got enough pills to fill a barrel three feet wide and six feet tall. Some
people brought in bags of them.
Medical waste collection jugs have been placed in a few area pharmacies
as part of the Grand Traverse Countys Take it Back Program (Google for
the list of pharmacies) and Yellow Jug Old Drugs, which is run by the
Great Lakes Clean Water Organization, has placed jugs in Traverse City:
the Munson pharmacy in the former osteopathic hospital, Medicap at Chums
Corners, and Thompsons Pharmacy. A jug is also at Corner Druggist in Elk
The Little River Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is collecting
Some counties do accept medical waste during hazardous waste collection
Wastewater Education received a Grand Traverse Regional Community
Foundation grant to help coordinate all collection efforts in the region.
Collection efforts, by law, cannot accept controlled drugs unless law
enforcement is directly involved. Very few, if any, area law enforcement
agencies have 24/7 secure containers for controlled drug returns. One
model program, called P2D2, has been adopted by communities across the
country to take back all drugs, but it hasnt been instituted here.
Even if humans can mitigate the amount of pharmaceuticals that go down the
drain, the problem is much bigger than us. Humans dont ingest nearly the
volume of pharmaceuticals that animals do, said Patrick Donovan of the
DNREs Cadillac office, who sits on the Wastewater Education board.
Quite frankly, the huge bulk of medications used in Michigan are used in
the agricultural sector for chicken, pigs, cattle beef, dairy cows and
sheep. If you looked at the human population and the animal population,
the animals outnumber us quite a bit. A pig is a huge as a man, cows are
as heavy as three or four people. When you look at the size of the animals
and the antibiotics and the amount of pharmaceutical material in the ag
industry overall, its just incredible. Its much more than it is for
For more information on this topic, go to wastewatereducation.org.