National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

News and Notes (Fall 2003)

Think Before You Flush That Pill

We used to think the best way to dispose of old or leftover medicine was to flush it down the toilet. That way kids and animals wouldn’t come in contact with it and inadvertently become poisoned. But that’s not true anymore, and environmental scientists are warning people, “Do not flush.”

Antibiotics, hormones, painkillers, antidepressants, and an array of other medications are now finding their way into the nation’s waterways—raising disturbing questions about potential health and environmental effects, according to the Associated Press article, “Flushing Expired Drugs No Longer Recommended.” Besides individuals who flush prescriptions, nursing homes dispose of anywhere between $73 million and $378 million worth of drugs each year. Some are incinerated, but many are just flushed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is studying whether to develop formal recommendations for what to do with old or leftover drugs. “The age-old wisdom of flushing medication down the toilet is probably the least desirable of the alternatives,”
says Christian Daughton of EPA’s Las Vegas laboratory.

Long-term effects of these drugs aren’t known, but environmental scientists worry that exposure to even tiny amounts might cause harm, at least to the ecology.
Studies have linked hormone exposure to reproductive side effects in fish (see the article in On Tap, Winter 2003, “They’re in the water. They make fish change sex. Endocrine Disruptors. What are they doing to you?”) Scientists also worry about environmental exposure to antibiotics because they fear microbes may become drug resistant and eventually become “super germs.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reevaluating its policy about labeling drugs with instructions for disposal. In addition, some states are working to allow nursing homes to donate medications to indigent patients, as long they weren’t opened or tampered with in any way. Until there’s labeling, though, environmental experts offer this advice:
• Take all of a prescribed medication unless there’s a good reason not to, such as a bad side effect.
• Trash is better than the toilet. Take proper precautions against children or pets accidentally ingesting them, such as breaking up capsules and crushing tablets and then putting the remains back in the original container. Tape the container, and then double bag it before tossing.
• Check to see if there’s a local household hazardous waste collection site that will take old prescription drugs.
• The FDA suggests asking pharmacies to take old medication back.

RUS Loans: Poverty Rate Unchanged; Others Up
The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) announced interest rates for water and wastewater loans. RUS interest rates are issued quarterly at three different levels: the poverty line rate, the intermediate rate, and the market rate. The rates, which apply to all loans issued from October 1 through December 31, 2003, are:

poverty line: 4.5 percent (unchanged from the previous quarter);
intermediate: 4.75 percent (up 0.375 percent from the previous quarter); and
market: 5.0 percent (up 0.75 percent from the previous quarter).

RUS loans are administered through state Rural Development offices, which can provide specific information concerning RUS loan requirements and applications procedures. For the phone number of your state Rural Development office, contact the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse at (304) 293-4191. The list is also available on the RUS Web site at

Study Finds Nitrates Increase Bladder Cancer Risk
Nitrate in drinking water is associated with an increased risk for bladder cancer, according to a University of Iowa (UI) study that looked at cancer incidence among nearly 22,000 Iowa women.

The study results suggest that even low-level exposure to nitrates over many years could cause increases in certain types of cancer, said Peter Weyer, Ph.D., associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) and one of the study’s lead authors. The study was published in the May 2001 issue of the journal Epidemiology.

“The positive association we found between nitrate contamination in drinking water and bladder cancer is consistent with some previous data. However, this is something that warrants follow-up research,” said Weyer, who co-authored the article with James R. Cerhan, M.D., Ph.D., an investigator with the department of health sciences research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

The researchers assessed nitrate exposure from drinking water in 21,977 women who were participants in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. The women, who were between 55 and 69 years old in 1986 (at the start of the study) resided in a total of 400 Iowa communities and had used the same drinking water supply for more than 10 years. Approximately 16,500 of the women received their water from municipal water supplies; the remaining women used private wells.

Because no individual water consumption data were available, the researchers assigned each woman an average level of exposure to nitrate based on data collected between 1955 to 1988 on nitrate levels in her community’s water supply. No nitrate data were available about women using private wells.

Using cancer incidence data from the Iowa Cancer Registry for 1986 to 1998, and after adjusting for factors such as smoking and nitrate in the diet, the researchers found a greater risk for bladder cancer as the nitrate levels in the communitie’ water supplies increased. Women whose average drinking water nitrate exposure level was greater than 2.46 milligrams (mg) per liter (nitrate-nitrogen) were 2.83 times more likely to develop bladder cancer than women in the lowest nitrate exposure level (less than 0.36 mg per liter).

Nitrate is produced naturally within the body, environmental sources include food (including many vegetables), contaminated drinking water, cigarette smoking, and certain medications. Drinking water can account for a substantial proportion of the total nitrate intake. Up to 20 percent of ingested nitrate is transformed in the body to nitrite, which can then undergo transformation in the stomach, colon and bladder to form N-nitroso compounds. These compounds are known to cause cancer in a variety of organs in more than 40 animal species, including higher primates.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard is 10 mg per liter nitrate-nitrogen. Our study suggests that nitrate levels much less than that could be a serious health concern,” Weyer said. Weyer emphasized that additional studies are needed to look at possible links between nitrate levels in drinking water and cancer, particularly with respect to refining exposure assessments.

“From a public health perspective, source water protection is a main concern. Sources of nitrate which can impact water supplies include fertilizers, human waste, and animal waste,” he said. “All of us, rural and urban residents alike, need to be more aware of how what we do as individuals can impact our water sources and, potentially, our health.”

For more information about this study, e-mail or call (888) NITRATE (1-888-648-7283).

Water Peace or Water War
After seven years of negotiations, tentative pacts, broken deals, bitter denunciations and a federal water cutback, four giant Southern California water agencies finally have a plan that can lead to peace on the Colorado River, protect the Salton Sea and give San Diego a measure of water independence.

The California and federal governments support the agreement. So do the other six Colorado River Basin states. The California Legislature has passed the implementing bills with rare unanimity and dispatch. All that remains is formal approval by the water district boards: the Imperial Irrigation District, a giant farming area in Imperial County; the San Diego County Water Authority, the wholesaler to districts throughout its county; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, wholesaler to six area counties; and the Coachella Valley Water District, serving Riverside County farms and cities. They should seal the deal quickly.

The plan allows California to continue to take surplus water from the Colorado River, when it is available, for the next 12 years. This would enable the state to gradually wean itself from the water it has been taking in excess of its legal entitlement, 4.4 million acre-feet a year. One acre-foot provides the annual needs of two households.

Finally settled is how California‘s Colorado River allotment would be divided among Imperial, Coachella and Metropolitan. This has been an unsettled and disrupting issue since the 1930s. Metropolitan would gain access to some Imperial water, thus reducing its need to seek additional supplies from Northern California. San Diego would receive up to 200,000 acre-feet a year from Imperial in the largest farm-to-city water trade ever. Currently, San Diego is all but totally reliant on Metropolitan. In a severe drought, San Diego’s portion could be cut back to preserve supplies for other, more senior Metropolitan customers.

The new plan ingeniously provides environmental protection for the Salton Sea, which relies on Imperial Valley irrigation runoff to prevent a fatal buildup of salt. The cost of Salton Sea restoration, to both the state and the agencies, killed an earlier agreement. The new plan provides for Imperial to sell an additional block of conserved farm water to the state, which would then resell the water at a profit to Metropolitan. The estimated $300 million would go to the Salton Sea rescue program.

Davis and his chief negotiator, Richard Katz, should get credit for insisting for months that talks continue until agreement was reached. The four agencies have agreed to act by October 12th. Metropolitan ratified the pact Tuesday. The only question mark is Imperial, set to vote on the plan October 7th.

This deal is as good as it’s going to get for all the parties and for the state as a whole. With it comes water peace. Without it, endless water war — in the courts and

New Jersey DHSS Releases Radium Report
The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) conducted a study that shows an association between elevated levels of radium in drinking water and a rare type of bone cancer. Previous studies in Ontario, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin also found a connection between osteosarcoma and radium in drinking water.

Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element found in groundwater throughout the U.S., including New Jersey. The federal government has established maximum contamination levels for radiological contamination. New Jersey has been monitoring and testing water supplies for many years, requiring water systems to undertake remediation efforts if they exceed the standards.

The body absorbs radium and deposits it in bones, where it can cause osteosarcoma if a person is exposed over a long period of time. Osteosarcoma occurs in an average of three people per million annually in New Jersey.

The study showed that males in parts of central and southern New Jersey, where radium concentrations exceeded federal standards, had a three-fold higher risk of developing osteosarcoma. The risk was highest in men age 25 and over. Researchers did not find an increased risk among females. (Genetic susceptibility may contribute to up to half of all osteosarcomas, and exposure to certain medical treatments also may cause the cancer.)

New Jersey’s study, based on the nation’s most complete measurement of all types of radium contributing to an individual’s overall natural exposure, reviewed 75 cases of osteosarcoma diagnosed from 1979–1998 and water test results from 1997–2000. Researchers used data from community water system surveys conducted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey. They examined 117 community water systems and subsystems serving 1.4 million people in 10 counties, where they found that 17 of the systems exceeded drinking water standards for radiological contamination.

To view a copy of the report, please visit the department Web site at

The Lights Go Out on Broadway
What happens if America fails to invest in its infrastructure?
The condition of our nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and other public works have shown little improvement since they received a D+ in 2001, and some areas are sliding toward failing grades, concluded the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their 2003 Progress Report for America’s Infrastructure.

The report examines trends and assesses progress and decline of America’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, mass transit, aviation, schools, drinking water, wastewater, dams, solid waste, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, and energy. In 2001, ASCE engineers released the Report Card for America's Infrastructure, grading the same 12 infrastructure categories at a discouraging D+ overall and estimating the need for a $1.3 trillion investment to bring conditions to acceptable levels.

“Time is working against our nation’s infrastructure,” said ASCE President Thomas L. Jackson, P.E. “Since we graded the infrastructure in 2001, our roads are more congested than ever, the number of unsafe and hazardous dams has increased, and our schools are unable to accommodate the mandated reductions in class size.

“While millions of Americans struggled to live without electricity for three days, millions more are still in the dark about the shaky state of our nation’s infrastructure. Our transportation, water, and energy systems haven’t been maintained, let alone
updated, to supply our every-increasing demands,” said Jackson.

“Americans’ concerns about security threats are real, but so are the threats posed by crumbling infrastructure,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter if the dam fails because cracks have never been repaired or if it fails at the hands of a terrorist. The towns below the dam will still be devastated.”

In 2001, the estimated cost for infrastructure renewal was $1.3 trillion over a five-year period. Today, that cost has risen to $1.6 trillion over a five-year period. The forecast for the trends detailed in the 2003 Progress Report was based on condition and performance of each infrastructure category as reported by federal sources, capacity of infrastructure versus need, and current and pending investment of state, local, and federal funding for infrastructure versus need.

For more information, including local infrastructure conditions and state infrastructure statistics, visit ASCE’s Web site at

Federal Funding Sources Catalog Available
The Catalog of Federal Funding Sources for Watershed Protection Web site is a searchable database of financial assistance sources (grants, loans, cost-sharing) available to fund watershed protection projects. To select funding programs for particular requirements, use either of two searches: One is based on subject matter criteria, and the other is based on words in the title of the funding program.

Criteria searches include the type of organization (e.g., non-profit groups, private landowners, states, businesses), type of assistance sought (grants or loans), and keywords (e.g., agriculture, wildlife habitat).

Searches result in a listing of programs by name. Click on each program name to review detailed information on the funding source.

For more information about this catalog, visit the Web site at

World Bank: Water Is the New Middle East Crisis
The water shortage problem is close to crisis levels in most countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a senior World Bank official warned in a Yahoo News article (Yahoo News is an Internet news service.)

“Fresh water availability is falling to crisis levels in MENA countries,” said Jean-Louis Sarbib, senior vice president of the World Bank, speaking at a conference at the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Dubai. Annual per capita fresh water availability in MENA countries is about 1,200 cubic meters compared with a world average of about 7,000 to 7,500 cubic meters, according to Sarbib.

He said the figure for Yemen is about 500 cubic meters, almost half the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters.Sarbib said nearly 70 percent of municipal water in cities like Amman goes unaccounted for, while Egypt recovers only two percent of its irrigation costs. Hazim el-Naser, Jordan’s minister of water and irrigation, said the problem lies in the fact that many countries in the region have “no long-term vision” regarding the water issue. Although the MENA region accounts for five percent of the world population, it has only one percent of accessible fresh water worldwide, according to the World Bank. They’ve made the politically charged issue of scarce water resources one of its “millennium development goals.”

Newly Discovered Bacteria Eats Arsenic
Some newly discovered Australian bacteria have a strange appetite: They like arsenic. An Australian research group led by Joanne Santini of La Trobe University is working on how to use bacteria that eat arsenic to clean up contaminated wastewater in Australia, overseas mining environments, and drinking water wells in Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Santini presented her research at Fresh Science, a British Council-sponsored program that highlights the achievements of Australian scientists who are beginning their careers.

“If the iron guts of bacteria that can eat arsenic without dying could be harnessed to process this waste, less damage would be done to the environment and hopefully, one day, fewer people on the subcontinent will get sick,” Santini said.

Arsenic occurs naturally in rocks and, in this form, is harmless. But when exposed to air and water, it becomes soluble and toxic to plants, animals, and humans. Mining and boring rock for drinking wells can expose the arsenic and turn it into two toxic forms: arsenate and arsenite.

Arsenate is easy and safe to get rid of. But arsenite is not. Santini hopes arsenite can be removed by the use of arsenite-eating bacteria on a mass scale.Santini and her students are studying 13 rare bacteria that were isolated from gold mines in the Northern Territory and Bendigo, Victoria. One bacterium, NT-26, is an arsenite-munching champion. It eats arsenite and excretes arsenate, which is a form of arsenic that’s easy to treat.

Theoretically, she says, it is cheaper and safer to use bacteria to clean up the environmental mess than chemical methods using chlorine or hydrogen peroxide.
Santini’s group has found the enzyme directly responsible for converting arsenite to arsenate. The group is now working to identify the same enzyme in other microbes and hunting for other proteins and genes involved in eating arsenite.

Santini, however, reminds us that to understand how these microbes work, they must be closely scrutinized. “We can’t just plonk them into a biological reactor and hope for the best,” she said.

For more information about this research, contact Santini at 03-9479 2206, or email her at