By Rick Andrew

Recent media articles on pharmaceuticals in water have generated questions among consumers about the quality of the US drinking water that led to a desire by manufacturers to offer solutions. NSF is currently working with key organizations to help further investigate this issue and offer a solution to consumers and manufacturers.

A key part of NSF’s mission is to provide consumers with the data they need to make informed decisions when it comes to securing their families’ wellbeing. To accomplish this, NSF is working closely with federal, state and local government agencies, wastewater and drinking water utility officials, product manufacturers and other public health experts. Current efforts include development of appropriate product standards as well as testing and certification services that help address emerging drinking water quality needs.

There are several additional groups that are coming together to discuss pharmaceuticals in water. On March 20, NSF hosted a meeting of the Joint Committee on Drinking Water Treatment Units to explore the topic of pharmaceuticals in drinking water. The Joint Committee is now in the process of setting up a task group to further research the status of pharmaceuticals in water. This task group includes experts from the manufacturing, regulatory and academic communities. There are many areas for the task group to consider: health effects, treatment options and additional requirements that may need to be established. Although NSF typically limits these task groups to 15 members or fewer, considering the complexities of this issue, this task group includes over 20 experts.

Health effects
The concentrations of pharmaceuticals being detected in drinking water are minute, in the parts per trillion (ppt) range, which are very low, especially when compared to typical clinical doses. In many cases, the amount of exposure by an individual consuming typical amounts of water per day for a typical lifetime is less than one clinical dose of the pharmaceutical compound. This is not to say that there are no health effects from this kind of low level, chronic exposure; the task group must keep this in mind when assessing the health effects of these compounds in drinking water.

This assessment will potentially lead to a focus on a subset of pharmaceuticals, as there are many possible compounds in this category that have been, or could be, detected in drinking water supplies at trace concentration levels.

Treatment options
Some of the preliminary information being gathered points toward reverse osmosis (RO), activated carbon and ozone treatment. The task group will need to consider which types of treatment technologies to focus on for development of test protocols for making claims. The protocols are developed with technology-specific test parameters such as inlet pressure, flow rates, sample points, test end points, test water characteristics and so on. The more technologies that are under consideration, the more protocols that will need to be developed.

US drinking water and consumer information
Federal and state legislation mandates testing and treatment for a wide array of tap water contaminants. A vast majority of public and private water utilities provide drinking water that meets or exceeds US EPA and state drinking water safety standards and additional legislation is being considered. While home water treatment systems are not specifically certified to reduce the concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water at this time, many of these products can help provide additional protection against a wide array of other contaminants (including arsenic, lead and cysts) sometimes found in drinking water.

New information is available on NSF’s website* to help educate consumers and offer guidance on this topic. A fact kit is also available, which provides additional information about common contaminants in drinking water and tips for selecting bottled water or a home drinking water treatment system.

The Associated Press report
A recent Associated Press (AP) report revealed that trace amounts of many different pharmaceuticals have been found in drinking water. In the course of their investigation, members of the AP National Investigative Team indicated they reviewed hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 officials, academics and scientists. They also surveyed the nation’s 50 largest cities, a dozen other major water providers and smaller community water providers in all 50 states. The information they have presented is not entirely new. It is interesting to note that pharmaceuticals were first detected in US water sources for over 40 years ago. As analytical instrumentation and capabilities have improved and detection limits have reached to the ppt level, more compounds have been detected in more sources.

This development leads to an interesting question. With analytical chemistry able to detect these compounds at low concentrations and questions being raised about the significance of any health effects that may exist with exposure and consumer desires to have safe water that is free of any contaminants to drink, how do we proceed? If it turns out that there are health effects from chronic exposure to low concentrations of pharmaceuticals, the answer is clear – develop health claims for reduction of the concentrations of these compounds in drinking water. But what if there are no health effects for this exposure? Should we have claims for contaminant reduction based on consumer desires where there are no health effects? These issues will contribute to interesting work for the task group as they move forward, ultimately with recommendations to the Joint Committee. The form of these recommendations remains to be seen, although they could potentially be suggestions to modify NSF/ANSI Drinking Water Treatment Units Standards to include protocols and claims for reduction of pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water.


About the author
Rick Andrew is the Operations Manager of the NSF Drinking Water Treatment Units Program. Prior to joining NSF, his previous experience was in the area of analytical and environmental chemistry consulting. Andrew has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA from the University of Michigan. He can be reached at 1-800-NSF-MARK or email: [email protected].


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