Estrogen and Other Emerging Contaminants

What are emerging contaminants?

Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals, drugs and personal care products are entering waterways across the U.S. A United States Geologic Survey study sampled 139 streams in 30 states and found that 80 percent of the streams sampled contained at least one antibiotic, prescription drug, steroid, or hormone contaminant. The contaminants have also been found in groundwater samples. Although these contaminants are present in very small amounts, aquatic organisms including fish and amphibians are highly sensitive to the low levels of exposure. Research to date, has not shown how humans may or may not be affected by such low levels of exposure.


How are emerging contaminants entering waterways?

These contaminants are entering the environment from wastewater treatment plant effluents and from livestock facilities. Many hospitals and individuals dispose of unused pharmaceuticals by dumping them into toilets or drains leading to wastewater treatment plants. The wastewater plants are not designed to remove these contaminants from the water. Animal manure is another source of antibiotics and pharmaceutical contaminants that enter the waterways through run-off and leaching.


What are some solutions to the problem of emerging contaminants?

Unwanted medication collection drives, public education, and labeling that indicates correct methods for disposing of unwanted drugs are a start toward addressing the contribution of individuals. Hospitals, nursing facilities, and other institutional entities must be directed to alternative methods for discarding of unwanted pharmaceuticals. Land application of wastewater effluent offers another solution. A Penn State study has demonstrated that field application of treated wastewater significantly reduces contaminant levels. Livestock operations should prevent run-off and leaching of emerging contaminates by employing a nutrient management plan.