Senate Public Hearing on Impact of Pharmaceuticals on Pennsylvania Waterways

The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee recently held a public hearing on the impact of pharmaceuticals on Pennsylvania waterways. PA DEP, PA Fish and Boat Commission, and scientists in the field testified on the effects of and possible solutions to pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting chemicals entering waterways. Possible solutions suggested were to upgrade sewage treatment plant infrastructure and affordable treatment technology to vastly improve wastewater treatment of pharmaceuticals.

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Brief Hearing Summary

Chairman Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) opened the meeting by opining that everyone is contributing to pharmaceuticals in the water.

John Arway, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, testified broadly about the issue of pharmaceuticals in waterways with specific reference to smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River. Pharmaceuticals, are, he stated, entering waterways in low but meaningful doses through treated wastewater releases of personally ingested and processed chemicals as well as landfill leachates processed in sewage facilities. Arway also stated that the chemicals enter the water in the form of agricultural runoff from wastewater bio-solids used in farming. Fish, he said, are found to suffer from hormonal-modifying endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) exposure "everywhere" in Pennsylvania as a result of these doses. Among the significant effects of EDCs, Arway said, scientists have discovered that between 90 and 100 percent of male smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna are suffering from an intersex condition where they develop female egg cells in their testis. Simultaneously, female bass are being found with abnormal proteins in their blood. To fix the problem, Arway recommended the implementation of two ideas: first, the installation of drug take-back boxes that will allow unused drugs to be incinerated rather than sent to landfills and, second, a relatively new kind of nitrifying sludge treatment that was, he said, successfully used in Canada to drastically improve wastewater treatment of EDCs.

Minority Chairman John Yudichak (D-Luzerne) asked if a migration pathway theory is being constructed by scientists to better understand how pharmaceuticals enter the waterways. Arway replied that the question would be better asked of upcoming testifier Dana Aunkst, Deputy Secretary for the Office of Water Programs for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) queried as to how many people actually bring unused drugs to the drug take-back boxes. Arway said that Geisinger Medical, which runs the program, would have an estimate, but that more people should certainly be using the boxes.

Dr. John Peterson Myers, CEO/Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, began his testimony by responding to Arway's point about a Canadian wastewater treatment plant. This plant, he said, was exorbitantly expensive at more than $320 million. However, he said, Dr. Terry Collins of Carnegie Mellon University has developed an exciting and affordable technology to vastly improve wastewater treatment of pharmaceuticals. "If you do nothing else, have Terry Collins come here to tell you about what his technology does." Moving on with his presentation, Myers stated that EDCs affect all Chesapeake Basin residents. For one thing, EDCs, he said, have very negative inter-generational imprints on DNA in species at extremely low doses. Myers emphasized the good news, though, that scientific knowledge of the whole issue is improving. Also, the medical community is "getting on board" and consumers are beginning to demand more safety in pharmaceuticals. He stated that an economic demand by consumers for safer products, aided by the increased knowledge of chemists, may eventually work to reduce the problem. "If we both pursue the policy options and we arm consumers with knowledge about this, and give chemists the tools to make safer materials, we're gonna have healthier people and healthier fish."

Chairman Yaw commented that the whole problem is "almost bigger than I can fathom." Myers replied, "It is a big problem, but we have to start somewhere. We have to start with the science." He elaborated that science is providing public actors with a set of steps they can take to begin mitigating pharmaceuticals and EDCs in waterways.

Chairman Yudichak asked if it would be more cost effective to change the drugs themselves to make them safer. Myers answered that there is not one single answer, but that providing chemists with an economic incentive to make safer drugs is vital. "Right now, it's never been their problem to figure out the consequences of their chemistry genius on people and fish." Creating such an economic incentive would, in Myers's opinion, be more effective than "fighting regulatory battle after regulatory battle. Those go on forever."

The specifics of how drugs enter the waterways were explained in detail by Dr. Emma J. Rosi, Associate Scientist with Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. There are, she said, more than 1,467 pharmaceuticals in the United States, as well as thousands of personal care products such as insect repellents. These enter waterways directly from manufacturing facilities along streams, through personal use, through septic tanks, and by the application of bio-solids to farm fields. She said this is a "diffuse problem happening wherever there are people." When various drugs enter rivers and creeks, they affect, said Rosi, algae, bacteria, and insects, causing the growth of toxic algal blooms and negative impacts upon insects. "Rivers now have a mix of drug 'cocktails'," she said. Rosi stated that, to solve the problem, society should collectively reduce use of drugs when possible. Also, private and public actors must encourage proper disposal of unused drugs and the growth of better private septic tank technology, and, finally, upgrade wastewater treatment infrastructure. The latter, she said, is "failing" badly across the country.

Chairman Yaw commented that the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River was built in 1928, and opined that the sediment around it must contain dangerous compounds. "It's almost a frightening thought as to what's there." Rosi answered that while she did not know the specifics of the Conowingo Dam situation, in general, "there's a legacy of past use" found in such places where persistent chemicals like the anti-bacterial compound triclosan linger.

Deputy Director Dana Aunkst testified to provide information on DEP's work so far to establish the extent of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in Pennsylvania's waters. He said DEP studies have found that areas downstream of wastewater treatment facilities are where drugs are found to be most concentrated, but that their presence is essentially ubiquitous. "While we have collected a great deal of data in the form of water samples, and were able to determine that these compounds are present, additional research and analysis are needed to determine what effects they may be having on our environment and to public health," concluded Aunkst.

Chairman Yaw stated that wastewater treatment is a major problem area and repeated that the committee should "probably talk" to the aforementioned Terry Collins. Aunkst replied that DEP has been following the work of Collins, but "we're not doing very much good if we're removing these compounds from the water column in a sewage treatment plant and putting them into the solids." The best thing to do, he said, would be to remove the compounds from the sewage and incinerate them.

Chairman Yudichak asked what funds DEP has to perform the described work. Aunkst answered that DEP mostly uses its general fund to perform it. Chairman Yudichak then asked if there is any kind of conversation at the national or state level about the regulation of wastewater treatment plants. Aunkst was not aware of any such conversations.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington) asked Aunkst if there is a way to remove the pharmaceuticals from the water column, drying them, and incinerating them. Aunkst said he was unsure about Sen. Bartolotta's exact meaning.

Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) inquired about leachates from landfills. Aunkst answered that most leachates in landfills are processed and discharged from wastewater treatment plants.

Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) commented that Aunkst's presentation had given him a "whole new perspective" on the issue of chemical compound build-ups in the waters in and around Lancaster County and stressed the importance of a "comprehensive approach" to solving the problem.

Chairman Yaw then called upon Myers to answer Bartolotta's earlier question about means of eliminating pharmaceutical waste products. Myers said, "Dr. Collins's technology does not remove the pharmaceuticals from the water column - it destroys them."

(Source: Pennsylvania Legislative Services)