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Follow-up study confirms no risk from pharmaceuticals in NYC drinking water

NEW YORK – The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has concluded a follow-up study that confirms no public health risks from the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in New York City’s source waters. In 2009, a one-year pilot program tested for the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in New York City’s three upstate watersheds, finding only trace amounts of these compounds. The follow-up study included data on chlorine-treated water in addition to source water, with samples taken from March to December of 2010. The findings of the study again show that NYC Water remains safe and healthy for the nine million New Yorkers who rely on it each day.

“As the operator of the largest unfiltered water supply in the world, our top priority is to ensure that New York City’s drinking water is safe and of the highest quality. This follow-up study confirms that this is still the case,” said Environmental Protection Commissioner Carter Strickland. “Most of the city’s water comes from the pristine Catskill mountains, a mostly undeveloped forested area, more than 100 miles northwest of New York City. Although pharmaceutical and personal care products are present in the environment and part of our daily lives, the latest study confirms that they do not affect the quality or safety of the drinking water for nine million New Yorkers. We are committed to maintaining the highest standards of watershed protection and we perform more than 500,000 tests each year to monitor water quality, which far exceeds what is required under regulations. Though there was never any indication that pharmaceuticals and personal care products presented a risk to our water supply, we now have two years of data to back up that assessment. We will continue to rigorously analyze this and all aspects of water quality to make sure New Yorkers get the best-tasting and safest water around.”

In the 2010 study, DEP conducted quarterly tests at three source water locations in the Croton, Delaware, and Catskill watersheds, and one treated water location in the Catskill/Delaware system, 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. After collection, the samples were tested at two different laboratories in each of the four rounds of sampling during the year. The samples were tested for the presence of 72 compounds, including antibiotics, hormones, prescription medications and endocrine disrupting compounds. Results of samples collected after chlorination indicated that the chlorine disinfection had little effect on the target compounds in this study.

Of the 72 compounds tested, 14 pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) were detected at least once, and six compounds were detected in three or more quarters of sampling. None of the 14 detected PPCP compounds were found at a concentration that would present a potential public health concern. In fact, all of the 14 compounds identified were found in concentrations in the low parts-per-trillion—1,000 times lower than the minimum threshold for any of the target compounds that are regulated by the state or federal government. One part per trillion is equal to one drop of water in 26 Olympic-size swimming pools. The fact that a substance is detectable does not mean it is harmful.

Pharmaceuticals have probably been present in water and the environment for as long as humans have been using them. Drugs that are consumed are not entirely absorbed by the human body and are excreted and passed into wastewater and surface water. Some pharmaceuticals are easily broken down and processed by the human body or degrade quickly in the environment, but others are not easily broken down and processed, so they enter sewers or septic systems. Externally applied medications and cosmetics can end up in the sewer as well, via showers and baths. Until recently, hospitals and other health care facilities have often flushed out-of-date or excess drugs down toilets. Wastewater treatment plants are designed to remove solids, chemicals and microorganisms but not at miniscule concentrations.