Saturday, December 7, 2013
Chemicals from a pharmaceutical and other consumer products have been found for the first time in Sebago Lake, the source of the Portland area's drinking water.
The trace amounts of a common pain medication, an ingredient in antibacterial soaps and a chemical that prevents carpet stains don't violate any safety standards or pose any known health threat.
But the test results show that Maine's largest drinking water reservoir is not immune to an emerging concern for large water systems around the country.
''Quite frankly, we were surprised to find (pharmaceutical pollution) in Sebago at the source of our intakes, 80 feet down,'' said Ronald Miller, general manager of the Portland Water District. On the other hand, Miller said, ''virtually every other water utility in the country that has tested has found it.''
Coincidentally, local agencies are gearing up to collect old and unused medications that might otherwise get flushed down toilets and into waterways.
Portland plans its first medication collection event today, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Portland Exposition Building. South Portland and Cape Elizabeth will collect unwanted medications Oct. 17.
''We know from national and regional studies that there is all kinds of stuff in the water, antidepressants and other drugs, because people are either flushing it or throwing stuff away and it's leaching out of landfills,'' said Julie Sullivan, Portland's director of public health. ''We want people to get stuff that they're not using anymore out of their cabinets.''
It's unclear how much of the medications found in waterways come from people who flush unwanted drugs down toilets or from people who take the drugs and then excrete them.
The long-term effects also are unknown. Studies have linked the pollution in some urban areas to changes in fish, but not yet to any health effects in people.
Water suppliers are not required to test for such chemicals. There are hundreds of potential contaminants, and no one knows how much of each one is dangerous.
The Portland Water District, which serves 11 communities and about 200,000 residents, voluntarily had the lake's water tested in August and got the results back last month.
The $1,000 test looked for 19 pharmaceuticals and other chemicals that, at sufficient levels, can disrupt the body's endocrine system. The test checked for the presence of caffeine, antidepressants, antibiotics and hormones such as those in birth control pills, none of which were found in the lake.
Trace amounts of three other compounds were detected in the water samples, according to the laboratory report. The levels were so low -- all measured in parts per trillion -- that the water district is doing a second test to verify the results, Miller said.
Ibuprofen, a common pain medication, was detected at 1.6 parts per trillion.
Triclosan, an antibacterial used in soap and other products, was detected at 7.7 parts per trillion.
And perfluoro octanesulfonate, a chemical used to make carpets stain-resistant, showed up at 0.79 parts per trillion.
The test also checked water that had gone through the district's disinfection plant. The treatment system appeared to remove the ibuprofen, at least to a level that was no longer detected. Levels of the other chemicals remained virtually the same after treatment.
Despite some initial surprise at the test results, Miller said, the presence of ibruprofen and Triclosan makes sense.
''With 2,500 septic tanks around Sebago Lake, within 200 feet of Sebago Lake, and all of the camps and all of the activity that goes on up there it's not surprising,'' he said.
And perfluoro octanesulfonate, it turns out, is now so pervasive in the environment that it is present at low levels in the blood of ''the general U.S. population,'' according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is known to cause developmental and other effects in laboratory animals, according to the agency.
While clearly not pristine, Sebago still was shown to be relatively clean, Miller said. ''We have found much smaller amounts than I've read about in other districts,'' he said.
The levels were so small, he said, that ''a person would have to drink 32 million 16-ounce glasses of water to get the equivalent of an ibuprofen tablet.''
Water quality experts in Maine's Department of Environmental Protection said the presence of such chemicals is not at all surprising.
''In fact, I'd be surprised if they found nothing,'' said Ann Pistell, a DEP official who helped set up the state's pharmaceutical collection system.
Pistell said there is growing evidence that water supplies across the country contain a variety of chemicals, but nobody knows the concentrations at which the contaminants can be a health hazard.
''I think in the next five years, we're going to see a landslide of studies on that subject,'' she said.
Barry Mower, a water quality expert for the DEP, said ongoing studies in the Presumpscot River indicate there may be differences in the types and sizes of fish above and below Westbrook, where treated sewage is discharged into the river. But much more research is needed before anyone can link pharmaceuticals to ecological changes there.
''We don't even know what (the chemicals) all are, and we don't know what the effect levels are one at a time, let alone when they interact with other chemicals,'' he said. ''Just because you find them at low levels doesn't mean it's causing problems. It might be and it might not be. That's the next step.''
And, Mower said, the findings in Sebago won't make him switch to bottled water.
''Nobody tests that stuff,'' he said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: