By Anne Paine, THE TENNESSEAN
Trace amounts of antidepressants, caffeine, herbicides and ibuprofen are among the chemicals found so far in state testing that began in mid-May of the raw water at community water treatment plant intakes.
What - if any - effect there might be to people or fish and other aquatic life is not known, but amounts are tiny, officials say.
"We are seeing some things, but they're at a parts- per-trillion level," said Tom Moss, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's water supply division.
Technological advances have allowed smaller and smaller amounts of chemicals to be detected in the lakes and streams that provide many communities with drinking water. That has helped spur on a national push to determine what substances are in waterways and what the potential is for harming health or the environment.
The chemicals are part of a group of medicines and personal care products that historically haven't been considered contaminants, but are emerging as possibly materials that water should be tested for and that are in need of regulatory limits.
They come from headache remedies, birth control pills, antibiotics, fragrances, antiseptic cleaners and other common products that are flushed down toilets and drains and later move into waterways from wastewater treatment plants.
Some are herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that run off yards and agricultural lands into streams and lakes. Some seep from septic tanks into groundwater.
The Tennessee data are preliminary until the state is given more details from University of Tennessee researchers who are analyzing the samples, said Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the state's environment and conservation department.
Among information needed is what the confidence factor is in the numbers, she said.
The state is sampling for many of the same chemicals that have been found in waters around the country. Its list includes 17 substances, including a type of herbicide, DEET insect repellant,
an antiseptic and a plasticizer, which is a substance used to make plastic flexible.
Slight amounts - they're compared to a drop of ink in an Olympic-size pool - of at least one of the 17 have been found at all 75 locations tested so far. These include raw water at plants in Spring Hill, Shelbyville, Centerville, Mount Pleasant, Hohenwald and Lawrenceburg, as well as in Shelby County in West Tennessee and Anderson County in East Tennessee.
The state intends to test all of the approximately 350 community water supply systems, including those in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, before the program ends in June.
An Environmental Protection Agency grant is funding the $200,000 study, Calabrese-Benton said.
Money is being held in reserve in case any of the samples show higher levels that would warrant testing the finished drinking water at a plant.
After scientists in Europe found pharmaceuticals in large bodies of water including the North Sea, the U.S. Geological Survey turned up evidence of such chemicals in this country's waters, published in a 2002 study.
Since then, the survey has been doing more research, and a national investigation by The Associated Press in 2008 that showed drugs in several municipal drinking water systems brought increased attention to the issue, prompting
Tennessee and some other states to take their own look.
Hormones are concern
Herb Buxton, in Trenton, N.J., manager of the U.S. Geological Survey's Toxic Substance Hydrology Program, said some chemicals, such as the headache remedies, found in waters around the country don't raise a red flag.
"They're much lower than anything that would be taken for a therapeutic dose," he said.
What begs for more analysis is the effect over a long period of time of low amounts of chemicals - both individually and as a mix - that could be active at trace levels.
Hormones are of particular interest because regular ingestion at an extremely low level is known to affect organisms, Buxton said.
On top of sex hormones that people excrete naturally, there also are excretions from those taking birth control and other hormone pills. And many chemicals can mimic hormones, generally changing cells so they take on female characteristics.
They include plasticizers, detergents and pesticides.
Studies have indicated that the sex of fish has been affected, with males taking on female characteristics, in waters with such chemicals. Researchers in Canada put a trace level of a synthetic estrogen in a lake, and a catastrophic effect was seen in the reproduction of a minnow species, with the population decimated.
A USGS study in Colorado compared fish upstream of a dam, where water came directly from the Rockies, with those downstream, below a community wastewater treatment plant. The population of fish below had more females, and female characteristics could be seen in males, Buxton said.
"We definitely need to continue research on these topics," he said. "The more we know, the more we can minimize the impact we have."
Testing not required
No regulations exist requiring testing for hormone-mimicking chemicals or the other items at issue, either in wastewater treatment plant discharges or in drinking water. That goes also for bottled water, which can come from community water treatment plants.
For years, EPA and communities have been trying to persuade people not to use a lot of chemicals on yards or farms for the sake of aquatic life.
Programs have more recently started up to urge the public not to flush old or leftover medicines down the toilet. Not much can be done about the medicines that are excreted.
While scientists try to learn more, others are turning an eye to water treatment needs in the future.
"As the population grows, people need to be looking at better ways to upgrade drinking water plants and wastewater plants, too," said Moss, with