The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report today on pharmaceuticals in our Nation's drinking water supply. The report, requested by Congressman Brad Miller, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment and Congressman Edward Markey, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, shows that a substantial number of pharmaceuticals are present throughout large segments of the U.S. drinking water supply. The concentrations of those pharmaceuticals that have been identified, however, are generally low, frequently measured in parts per trillion, but the full extent of this contamination is unknown. In addition, the potential short-term and long-term human health consequences of exposure to these contaminants are difficult to assess because there is extremely limited research in this area.
GAO recommends the creation of an interagency workgroup to coordinate research on the potential human health effects of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. drinking water supply as well as establishing a collaborative mechanism to collect the necessary data to help inform the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) efforts to protect public health.
"It is clear that we do not fully understand the health consequences from long-term low-dose exposures to pharmaceutical contaminants in our Nation's drinking water," said Congressman Miller. "We need more research, more data and more public awareness of the potential dangers of improper disposal of medicines," he said.
"It's often said that what you don't know won't hurt you, but when it comes to our drinking water, not knowing may have devastating health consequences," said Rep. Markey. "No one should have to worry that the glass of water they drink with their prescription medicine may actually contain unprescribed, illegal or harmful drugs. I encourage EPA to implement GAO's recommendations to ensure they have the data necessary to make informed decisions on how to best limit the presence of pharmaceuticals in our nation's drinking water supply and to work with other federal agencies to accomplish this goal."
Mr. Miller and Mr. Markey both agreed that funding research on this issue is important and should be supported. "Unless we establish more focused public health research on the potential dangers of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water supply today, we could be left investigating the outcome of these dangers tomorrow after long-term damage has already occurred," said Mr. Miller.
Most pharmaceuticals are not currently regulated under EPA's environmental regulations. EPA's most recent list of 116 contaminants includes 12 pharmaceuticals that it may seek to regulate in the future.
But the EPA has not endorsed past GAO recommendations to develop criteria and a process for identifying those contaminants on its candidate list that present the greatest public health concern. In addition, the EPA has not followed past GAO recommendations to develop plans to establish a coordinated process for obtaining key health effects data regarding these contaminants in order to make informed decisions about regulating them.
The GAO report found that for the 12 pharmaceuticals included on the EPA's 2009 Contaminant Candidate List, the EPA does not have comprehensive occurrence data for the presence of any of these pharmaceuticals in "treated drinking water" supplies and does not even have an analytic method suitable for conducting national drinking water studies for 7 of them. The EPA has said that it has or is developing suitable analytic methods for the other 5 pharmaceuticals on its list. The EPA also reported that it needs substantial data on the health effects for 8 of the 12 pharmaceuticals on its contaminant list. In addition, the GAO said, the EPA has not identified the drinking water contaminants of greatest public health concern.
The GAO recommended that the EPA Administrator establish an interagency workgroup to formally implement mechanisms to collaborate and coordinate research on pharmaceuticals in drinking water and that EPA should define the roles and responsibilities of these collaborative efforts, identify resources and experts regarding this issue and develop a process for monitoring, evaluating and reporting to the public the results of these collaborative research efforts. The EPA agreed with the GAO's findings and recommendations but noted that interagency collaboration may be hindered by available resources.
"ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH: Action Needed to Sustain Agencies' Collaboration on Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water," GAO-11-346, August 2011, available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11346.pdf .