News release: Health officials develop tool to evaluate potential health impact of pharmaceuticals in environment

News Release
September 2, 2015

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Health officials develop tool to evaluate potential health impact of pharmaceuticals in environment

Scientists at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) have developed screening values for 119 of the most commonly prescribed medicines as a first step toward evaluating the potential human health impacts of these pharmaceuticals in Minnesota waters. The values and methods used to obtain them are detailed in the Pharmaceutical Water Screening Values Report posted on the MDH website today at Rapid Assessments for Pharmaceuticals.

A water screening value is an amount of a pharmaceutical in drinking water that poses no expected risk to people drinking that water. In other words, if a particular compound or chemical were found in drinking water at a level below its screening value, it would not be expected to pose a health risk.

Environmental programs monitoring state waters for traces of medicines have been finding a variety of pharmaceuticals showing up in wastewater, lakes and rivers, and groundwater. The health of fish and other aquatic life has been the center of much of the concerns about traces of pharmaceuticals in water. These same lake, river and ground waters may in time also be used as drinking water sources, raising questions about potential health concerns should these pharmaceuticals get into drinking water. To respond to those concerns, MDH staff researched ways to determine potential health risks, evaluated a large number of pharmaceuticals and came up with the water screening values.

MDH officials said development of the values is significant for future environmental and public health work because they can be used:

  • In monitoring programs to quickly determine which pharmaceuticals are unlikely to pose a risk to health and which may need to be evaluated more closely.
  • To help prioritize future environmental monitoring and risk assessment efforts in Minnesota.
  • To help determine the need for improved laboratory techniques.

“It is important that we know more about the presence of pharmaceuticals in water,” said Pam Shubat, supervisor of the Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CEC) Program of the Minnesota Department of Health. “Pharmaceuticals are designed to affect the health of people and may harm aquatic life. This work will aid in understanding which pharmaceuticals may be of greater or lesser concern to Minnesotans.”

Only a portion of the pharmaceuticals in the MDH review have actually been detected in Minnesota waters, and a few have been detected once at concentrations above their screening values. The good news is that pharmaceuticals have not yet been detected in water coming from a public water system in Minnesota. The water screening values can be used as a tool in continued monitoring to help keep levels below health concerns.

How do pharmaceuticals get into the water in the first place? Nearly half of all Americans take at least one prescription medication. Our bodies use only a portion of the medications we take. The rest is eliminated through our waste. When medications are excreted by users, improperly discarded, or released during manufacturing or agricultural and veterinary uses, they can enter rivers, lakes, groundwater, and potentially drinking water.

The water screening values are based on a simple and rapid evaluation process using information that is readily available from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Building on well-established methods for assessing other chemicals, the screening values are designed to be highly protective of health.

Surface and groundwater monitoring are conducted by state and federal agencies such as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the U.S. Geological Survey. The MPCA is working in collaboration with MDH to evaluate the potential impact of pharmaceuticals and other contaminants of emerging concern on aquatic life.

“Given the number of pharmaceuticals being detected in Minnesota’s surface and groundwater, it is very helpful for the MPCA and others to have some context with which to review the monitoring results we’ve gotten,” said Katrina Kessler,  water assessment section manager at MPCA  “This information will help advance the MPCA’s work to protect Minnesota’s environment.”  

Consumers can help keep drugs out of Minnesota waters by:

  • Disposing of drugs safely rather than flushing them down the drain.
  • Taking only the amount needed to treat a health problem (what your body can’t immediately use may just pass through the body).
  • Taking advantage of drug take-back programs in your community.

For more information on proper drug disposal and take-back programs, see MPCA - Managing unwanted medications.

The report and more information on pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in water are on the MDH website at: Contaminants of Emerging Concern - Protecting Minnesota’s Water Resources.

The Pharmaceutical Screening Project and Report were made possible by the Clean Water Fund of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

-MDH-


Media inquiries:

Doug Schultz
MDH Communications
651-201-4993