The following guest post is by Gabriel Eckstein, a professor of law at Texas Wesleyan University. Prof. Eckstein is also the Director of the International Water Law Project and a Senior Fellow with the Texas Tech Center for Water Law & Policy. He and George William Sherk recently published an EPA-funded study entitled “Alternative Strategies for Managing Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products in Water Resources.” The study is available on the Micropollutants Clearinghouse website, a great resource for data, articles, and reports about PPCPs in drinking water systems across the country.
What’s in your water? Researchers have known for more than 40 years that pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) – such as antibiotics, prescription and over the counter drugs, steroids, reproductive hormones, fragrances, soaps, and thousands of other products – can end up in our drinking waters (see the Micropollutants Clearinghouse to view thousands of studies, articles, and reports about PPCPs in drinking water). Studies done over the past several decades have indicated that these contaminants can be found in both surface and ground waters throughout the United States (as well as most other countries). This has raised serious concerns stemming from the possibility that the presence of these PPCPs may pose a threat both to human and environmental health, either through direct exposure (e.g., contact with endocrine disrupting compounds) or indirect consequences (e.g., emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria). The water treatment and wastewater treatment communities have been especially concerned over PPCPs because of their ubiquitous nature and ability to persist or only partially degrade in water or during the wastewater treatment process.
Sources of PPCPs include human & animal feces and urine, hospital/medical wastes, wastes from industrial and agricultural processes, pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are disposed of inappropriately, urban runoff, and leachate from landfills. These contaminants are rarely treated or removed in the wastewater treatment process and typically remain in waters discharged from wastewater treatment plants into receiving streams and lakes, as well as in solid and liquid wastes applied to lands designated as application sites.
What have we done about PPCPs in our water? Not much, though not because of a lack of effort. The legal system (at least in the United States) was never meant to deal with micropollutants on this scale. For example, while common law remedies like trespass, nuisance, negligence, and strict liability may be applicable to concerns over PPCPs in water supplies, they rely on litigation, an all-to-often expensive, time consuming, and very case-specific process. Moreover, success in litigation requires plaintiffs to prove causation – which manufacturer produced the PPCP involved in the suit, and which PPCPs resulted in the harm alleged in the suit – hurdles that may be difficult to overcome.
An alternative to common law remedies might be found under federal statutory regimes including the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Toxic Substance Control Act, and Endangered Species Act. While these strategies may be relevant and important, their implementation also can be expensive and politically complicated. Moreover, none of these schemes specifically address PPCPs and none are singularly applicable to (let alone capable of managing) the thousands of different pharmaceuticals and personal care products introduced into our water systems every year.
A more effective route for responding to PPCPs in drinking water supplies may be to focus on alternative strategies that focus on removing (or limiting the presence of) PPCPs at the source. In the case of pharmaceuticals, alternative strategies might include:
- Designing drugs and personal care products that minimize the human and animal excretion of wastes, which would then minimize the volume of PPCPs that enter the water system;
- Changing the delivery mechanisms by better informing doctors and patients about the effects of PPCPs on the environment, and educating doctors and other professionals on how to individualize or tailor doses to the individual user rather than prescribing the manufacturers’ recommended dose;
- Informing users on how to dispose of unused drugs and personal care products and producing a variety of package sizes to reduce the amount of unused drugs;
- Developing more disciplined dispensing and inventory control protocols to reduce disposal of unused drugs, such as through limits on Internet sales and tying drug dispensing of the necessary quantity to the drug’s expiration date (i.e., minimize drug expiration before the course of treatment is completed);
- Encouraging states or manufacturers of PPCPs to develop take-back arrangements and appropriate disposal/recycling programs; and
- Developing nutrition and health maintenance programs that reduce illness and the need for PPCPs, as well as the use of alternative products that do not contain PPCPs, such as probiotics.
The issue of PPCPs in water supplies is a complex problem that will require more than one simple solution. Yes, it will require monitoring and regulating the PPCPs that do enter the water supply, new monitoring, detection, and analysis methods, and new drinking water treatment processes. Yet, to successfully limit the presence of these contaminants in our drinking water, it will also require a reduction in the sources of PPCPs. This reduction will be achieved only through a combination of technological and industry fixes as well as regulatory and statutory mechanisms.
(Note: Another complimentary strategy to address this problem is being pursued by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. Working with NRDC, GLELC filed a petition last year with the Food and Drug Administration to close a regulatory loophole that allows pharmaceutical drugs to be approved without considering their impacts on drinking water. For more info, see this previous post.)