Washington, DC — Scientists have known about the widespread presence of chemicals from pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products in our drinking water for decades, despite recent media coverage of the issue. In 1996, Congress ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the issue, but the agency has missed deadlines and avoided addressing the growing contamination, according to an analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Chemicals from over-the-counter and prescription medications, dietary supplements, hormones, cleaning agents and other products are not completely metabolized by the human body and are not screened in water treatment, and thus end up being discharged into rivers and lakes and entering our drinking water supplies. Many of these chemicals are also endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) that either block or mimic natural hormones, thereby disrupting normal functioning of organs.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress directed EPA to screen chemicals for hormonal effects on humans in the Food Quality Protection Act. During the intervening 12 years, EPA has done remarkably little, despite mounting evidence that thousands of chemical compounds are a spreading presence in drinking water:
- EPA is not listing known EDCs on its Contaminant Candidate List of priority contaminants which are anticipated to occur in public water systems. Even if EDCs made this list, however, Contaminant Candidates are still not regulated under federal drinking water regulations;
- Although it has identified more than 87,000 suspected EDCs, it has taken EPA 11 years (July 2007) to publish a list of only 73 chemicals for which it proposes to begin screening; and
- EPA has repeatedly missed statutory deadlines to begin testing and screening for EDCs.
“EPA has simply shirked its duty to protect America’s drinking water,”stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former EPA biologist and lawyer who prepared PEER’s analysis. “On issues of emerging contaminants in our water, EPA is moving with all deliberate delay.”
EPA’s webpage on pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) contains a bald assertion that these chemicals do not harm humans: “To date, scientists have found no evidence of adverse human health effects from PPCPs in the environment.” This assertion, however, is contradicted not only by scientists outside of EPA, but also from EPA’s own scientists and publications.
- EPA publications state, for example, “Endocrine disruptors … may cause a variety of problems with, for example, development, behavior, and reproduction. They have the potential to impact both human and wildlife populations”;
- Respected scientists outside the EPA, including at the World Health Organization, also caution that exposure to EDCs can result in adverse health impacts to non-humans, and therefore we must invoke the precautionary principal when considering the potential impacts on humans; and
- The drug industry itself is expressing more concern than EPA. The Associated Press quoted Mary Buzby, director of environmental technology for Merck & Co. Inc, as saying “There’s no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they’re at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms.”
“Fetuses are at risk from even one part per quadrillion of certain chemicals, and children, the elderly, and people with immune deficiencies are more sensitive than the general population. This exposure pathway should be cause for great concern, not bland assurances,” Bennett added. “When it should be pressing forward, EPA is spinning in place, as if it has overdosed on pharmaceuticals.”