Water experts tackle new types of pollution
Summit County, Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY – Over the next few weeks, residents and visitors in Summit County will have the chance to help Summit County take the lead in protecting local streams and reservoirs from especially pesky pollutants that aren’t easily cleaned by existing water treatment plants.
An innovative voluntary take-back program at City Market will allow consumers to drop off certain types of unused and unwanted prescription drugs, including contraceptives, antibiotics, antidepressants and common painkillers, that may already be having a big impact on aquatic ecosystems by disrupting endocrine systems in fish.
“This is turning into the next big issue for water treatment plants,” said local water quality expert Lane Wyatt. With new, extra-sensitive monitoring equipment, agencies like the EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey have been able to detect trace amounts of various substances – including Viagra and ibuprofen – that may be adversely affecting fish.
Scientists also are concerned that a build-up of antibiotics in the environment could eventually lead to a significant impact on a massive scale, with changes to the way naturally occurring bacteria process vast quantities of biomass like dead wood, recycling the material into nutrients.
Wyatt said the Colorado Division of Wildlife has been finding hermaphroditic trout in some Colorado rivers. Research in other areas suggests that the chemicals are starting to accumulate in the food chain. Studies from Sweden show that some of the pollutants are starting to show up in breast milk.
“It’s an education thing,” Wyatt said. By focusing on the consumer side of the equation, there’s an opportunity to show people how their lifestyles have an impact on the environment.
The issue is so new that there
currently are no water-quality standards to address the new class of contaminants, Wyatt said. Upgrading water treatment plants to remove the chemicals is likely to be expensive. Keeping the pollutants out of the water in the first place could help address the problem.
The Summit County pilot project is funded by EPA grants and will be carried out as a cooperative effort, including local, state and federal agencies and Kroeger’s, the parent company of City Market. The take-back boxes will be open for drop-offs sometime in early December (watch the Summit Daily for an upcoming article with details on the program).
The $7,500 contract with Kroeger’s to operate the take-back stations is funded by the Summit Water Quality Committee.
Wyatt said local waters were tested with the new equipment in recent weeks to get some baseline data on the emerging contaminants. Similarly, local residents had a chance to fill out a mail-in survey on the same topic in the past few weeks in advance of publicizing the prescription drug take-back. EPA officials said they wanted to get an idea of how much the public knows about the subject before launching an education push.
“This hasn’t been done in very many places,” said the EPA’s Jean Mackenzie, who is also coordinating an interagency effort to clean up pollution at the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine. She said many of the emerging pollutants act as pseudo-estrogen, leading an increased incidence of inter-sex fish.
“We need to keep them out of the water because treatment is not set up to take them out,” she said.
The U.S. Geological Survey provides an excellent overview of emerging contaminant issues at this link: