Drug the river

Sacramento doesn’t test its H2O for pharmaceutical waste

Experts continue to research at what levels pharmaceutical waste in our water sources becomes unhealthy to ingest.

Experts continue to research at what levels pharmaceutical waste in our water sources becomes unhealthy to ingest.


There’ve been a number of national reports recently stating that a variety of pharmaceutical drugs contaminate water sources throughout the country. Yet most cities, including Sacramento, do not test for these types of waste.

“Currently, pharmaceuticals and other personal-care products are not regulated and not required to be tested,” says Scott Furnas, vice president of California Laboratory Services in Sacramento.

A study released by the U.S. Geological Survey and The Associated Press National Investigation Team in 2008 revealed that medications taken for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems infect the drinking-water supply of at least 46 million Americans. Data also shows that these chemicals have been found in treated tap water and water supplies in 24 major metropolitan areas throughout the nation.

And although tests show low levels of these drugs, there’s a big question that experts are still researching: At what level does pharmaceutical waste become unhealthy to ingest?

William L. Rukeyser, public affairs director for the State Water Resources Control Board, says some studies show trace amounts, of pharmaceutical waste, but in terms of parts per billion. This means levels are low, but the WRCB still is looking further into the matter.

But prescription drug use is increasing in all age groups.

“[And] most of the pharmaceuticals we ingest are not metabolized in our bodies, so we excrete them and they go into the wastewater,” Rukeyser explains. “Sewage plants were never designed to remove such molecules.”

Rukeyser says that in the past, people were advised to flush away unused drugs—even though now experts warn otherwise.

Nicole Coleman, communication and media officer for the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, says its goal is to prevent pharmaceuticals from entering local waterways, which in households can happen through flushing unused medications or pouring them down a sink or drain. She recommends residents take unwanted medications, except controlled substances, to a local hazardous-waste facility.

If residents do possess controlled substances, such as Vicodin, Ambien or OxyContin, SRCSD recommends crushing them and mixing with kitty litter or coffee grounds before throwing away in the trash.

SRCSD provides regional wastewater conveyance and treatment services to residential, industrial and commercial customers in Sacramento County and city of West Sacramento. It initiated the Don’t Flush Your Meds outreach program in 2008 as a response to the statewide campaign No Drugs Down the Drain, to prevent unused medications from entering into waterways. The board posts information at pharmacy counters, sends notices in customers’ bills, advertises the website www.dontflushyourmeds.com, which hosts information on proper pharmaceutical disposal and maintains an information hotline, (916) 875-9393.

“The water is significantly better quality than in the past, but there is more to be done,” Rukeyser says.

Diane Margetts, of the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services, says there are more than 25 water purveyors in the region. Some use river water from the Sacramento or American rivers, and others use well water, or combinations of both.

“All drinking water is very safe to drink,” Margetts says. “Both river and well water are treated to meet the standards set by the Department of Health Services.”

At least 85 percent of the drinking water managed by the Sacramento County Water Agency is from wells and not from river sources, according to Margetts. All water purveyors are required to continually test sources and provide constituents annual information on their drinking water.

The California Laboratory Services tests for various contaminants depending on what their client is looking for. It usually tests for petroleum products, pesticides, heavy metals, trace metals, cyanide, and bacteria.

And, at the end of the day, California Laboratory Services’ Furnas says the American River is much cleaner than the Sacramento River.