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The safety of water near pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities could be in peril as there is a higher level of drugs found in surface water near the plants, according to a new study.
Outflow from two wastewater treatment plants in New York that receive more than 20% of their wastewater from pharmaceutical facilities had concentrations of pharmaceuticals that were 10 to 1,000 times higher than outflows from 24 wastewater plants nationwide that do not receive wastewater from pharmaceutical manufacturers.[private]
“This is the first study in the U.S. to identify pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities as a significant source of pharmaceuticals to the environment,” said Matthew C. Larsen, associate director for water at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who conducted the study with the State of New York. “The USGS is working with water utilities to evaluate alternative water treatment technologies with the goal of reducing the release of pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants to the environment.”
Maximum concentrations in outflows from the two wastewater treatment plants in New York were:
• 3,800 parts per billion (ppb) of metaxalone (a muscle relaxant)
• 1,700 ppb of oxycodone (an opioid prescribed for pain relief)
• Greater than 400 ppb of methadone (an opioid prescribed for pain relief and drug withdrawal)
• 160 ppb of butalbital (a barbiturate)
• Greater than 40 ppb of phendimetrazine (a stimulant prescribed for obesity) and carisoprodol (a muscle relaxant)
• 3.9 ppb diazepam (an anti-anxiety medication)
While pharmaceutical concentrations were significantly lower in receiving streams, measurable concentrations existed as far as 20 miles downstream.
By contrast, outflow from the wastewater treatment plants that do not receive wastewater from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities had concentrations that rarely exceeded one ppb.
For this study, USGS scientists collected outflow samples periodically from 2004 to 2009 from three New York wastewater treatment plants, two of which receive more than 20% of their wastewater from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities. USGS also collected samples from 2006-2009 from 23 selected wastewater treatment plants across the nation that do not receive wastewater from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities.
All of the samples underwent analysis for seven pharmaceuticals, including opioids and muscle relaxants, representing some of the most frequently prescribed medications in the U.S. Some pharmaceuticals studied have not previously been a part of environmental studies.
Researchers found the pharmaceuticals investigated in this study using a forensic approach that identified initially unknown chemicals present in the wastewater treatment plant outflows at elevated levels. Although public records were not available for all pharmaceuticals formulated at these sites, available data indicate the New York plants manufactured these seven pharmaceuticals involved in the study. Additional pharmaceuticals were in the outflow of these two wastewater treatment plants, and ongoing studies are documenting the levels at which they occur in the environment.
This study is part of a long-term effort to determine the fate and effects of chemicals of emerging environmental concern and to provide water-resource managers with objective information that assists in the development of effective water management practices.[/private]

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