DEP says drug traces don't threaten water

By Brian Sweeney
Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in the New York City Watershed do not pose a threat to water quality, the Department of Environmental Protection has announced. In a press statement issued last week, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Cas Calloway said that a yearlong study has concluded that the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in New York City’s water source do not pose a public health risk.
The DEP’s findings were released less than five months after four area healthcare providers were fined by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for disposing of unused pharmaceuticals via municipal wastewater systems. The attorney general said at the time that the waste facilities were not equipped to process these pharmaceuticals and byproducts could endanger the watershed.
In January, the attorney general announced fines totaling $8,000 for the Margaretville Hospital and Mountainside Residential Care Center, $3,500 against O’Connor Hospital and $6,000 in fines against Countryside Care Center, both in Delhi, for what he termed illegal drug disposal. Four other upstate healthcare facilities targeted by the AG’s office refused to sign consent orders for the investigation.
The DEP announcement last week contradicts the attorney general’s findings.
“Though there was never any indication that pharmaceuticals and personal care products presented a health or quality risk to our water supply, we undertook this study as part of our ongoing efforts to rigorously analyze all aspects of water quality,” said Commissioner Calloway.
“Pharmaceuticals and personal care products are part of our daily lives, and the fact is traces of these products are present in the environment. We want to be sure that the presence of these products in our water supply did not rise to a level that impacts the quality of drinking water, and that is what this study shows,” he added.
The DEP conducted quarterly tests at three source water locations in the Croton, Delaware, and Catskill watersheds throughout 2009 to determine whether a target group of pharmaceutical and personal care products could be detected at any level in New York City’s water supply. The samples were tested for the presence of 78 compounds — including antibiotics, hormones, prescription medications and endocrine disrupting compounds.
Officials said that of the 78 compounds tested, 16 pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) were detected at least once, and eight compounds were detected in three or more quarters of sampling. None of the 16 detected PPCP compounds were found at a concentration that would present a potential public health concern, according to the DEP. 
The DEP’s report indicated, “ The fact that a substance is detectable does not mean it is harmful. For example, a person would have to drink 846,000 glasses of water in a single day, approximately 90 years’ worth of drinking water, to get the dose contained in a single over-the-counter tablet of ibuprofen.”
Margaretville Hospital CEO Ed Morache says his campus (which includes Mountainside) has complied fully the state’s recommendations for disposing of unused pharmaceuticals.
“The attorney general’s office was concerned about the practices of disposing medications in the watershed area, and surveyed our hospital and nursing facility, along with several others. The investigation, with which we fully cooperated, led us to bringing in a consultant, and upgrading our systems of disposing of medications along with other regulated medical waste.”
There was no immediate word whether the fines levied against the healthcare providers would be returned.