'Emerging Contaminants' From Septic Systems Make Way into Drinking Water

Sep 23, 2013

Credit JJ

Pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and cleaning agents have become routine and, in some cases, indispensable parts of our lives. But do they belong in our drinking water?

We’ve all taken ibuprofen for a headache, or antibiotics to treat an infection. We wash our hair with shampoo and clean our floors and counters with any number of commercially available concoctions. We rarely think about what happens to those chemicals once we're done with them.

Dr. Laurel Schaider and her colleagues at Silent Spring Institute, however, have done a lot of research on exactly that point. A new study led by Schaider provides evidence of at least one such contaminant of emerging concern, as pharmaceuticals, personal care products and other household chemicals are collectively known, in three quarters of public drinking water wells on Cape Cod. Previous studies by Silent Spring Institute researchers have found such chemicals in private drinking water wells, groundwater and ponds around Cape Cod.

A second report - a synthesis of all the relevant research - paints a clear picture of how this comes to be. In short, the medications and chemicals we use each day leave our homes in wastewater. Many are removed or broken down in septic systems or sewage treatment plants, but many others are not. The more recalcitrant chemicals go on to enter groundwater, streams, ponds, and eventually, drinking water supplies.

Few (if any) would say this is a good thing, but whether or not it poses a serious health risk remains an open question. These chemicals are present in vanishingly small quantities, just parts per trillion.  Such concentrations have been shown, in some cases, to have health effects on animals. But there’s no proof they have such impacts on humans. Of course, there’s also no proof that they don’t.

For more information:

Silent Spring Institute will present a free, public research update at Barnstable Town Hall in Hyannis, MA. The event is at noon on Wednesday, October 2, 2013.