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The 'new' threat to water supplies: contamination from hospital waste

Submitted by doug.peeples on January 20, 2016

At first glance, it may not seem like a big deal that some chemicals and a few bugs from the hospital wind up in our water. That's what treatment plants are for, right?

Yes, but a lot of the chemicals that have been found in wastewater -- like chemotherapy drugs and chemical compounds used in X-rays and CT scans may not be removed when wastewater is treated. Described as 'contaminants of emerging concern' (CECs), many are resistant to standard treatment processes.

That very big problem is what prompted the Water Research Foundation to begin a research project to help water and wastewater utilities and hospitals minimize the potential for contamination. The project goal is to learn how water utilities, wastewater utilities and hospitals can take the needed steps to ensure U.S. water supplies are safe, according to a Foundation announcement.

The World Health Organization thinks it's a big deal, too…
As the WHO points out in a fact sheet, "There are currently few systematic monitoring programmess or comprehensive studies available on human exposure to pharmaceuticals from drinking water." Keep in mind the potential for contamination comes not only from hospitals, but also from people tossing over-the-counter and prescription drugs down the toilet and the possibility of inadequate preventive measures at pharmaceutical manufacturing plants. Other WHO sources note that inadequate disposal and management procedures increase the risk of contamination, as does faulty equipment that can allow contaminants to seep into groundwater.

The Foundation's research project will examine the precautions taken now to prevent water contamination and provide a better understanding to water utilities of regulations governing how hospitals and other healthcare facilities get rid of their waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a rule on management standards for pharmaceutical waste. The Foundation hopes the EPA rule and its own research will help preserve the quality of our drinking water and surface water.

"Protecting the sources of our wastewater and drinking water by reducing chemical and microbial exposure is imperative to ensuring both public health and the safety of the environment," said Rob Renner, the Foundation's executive director. "This research into preventing CECs from entering our waterways will enable collaboration between water utilities, healthcare practitioners and other stakeholders."

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.