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Pharmaceuticals And Other Emerging Contaminants In Water

Pharmaceuticals and Other Emerging Contaminants in Water. Although referred to as "emerging contaminants," many of these compounds were or have been in use for a long time and so their presence in water is not new. What is new; however, is our ability to effectively measure these contaminants at the very low concentrations that typically are found in surface and ground water, as well as the realization that some of the compounds are not removed by conventional wastewater and potable-water treatments. While adverse effects on aquatic organisms or humans have been documented for some of these compounds, the effects of long-term exposure to many of the compounds is not known, particularly since they can be present in complex mixtures.

Many studies of emerging contaminants have been done by the U.S. Geological Survey Toxic Substances Hydrology Program. In one national study, one or more of these contaminants were found in 80 percent of the 139 streams sampled in 30 states across the U.S.

In a regional USGS study in the Great and Little Miami Basins, the presence of emerging contaminants in Ohio waters was documented. Of the 116 contaminants targeted during the study, 61 were detected at least once. Contaminants were present more frequently in surface-water than in ground-water samples.

New analytical methods have enabled researchers to better assess the presence of emerging contaminants in waters and sediments. These methods presently are being used to assess waters for two separate studies in Ohio described below.

The Occurrence of Organic Wastewater Compounds in the Tinkers Creek Watershed in Northeast Ohio

The Occurrence of Organic Wastewater Compounds in the Tinkers Creek Watershed in Northeast Ohio. In cooperation with Ohio Water Development Authority, City of Solon, City of Bedford, City of Twinsburg, Portage County, City of Bedford Heights, Summit County, National Park Service, and Ohio EPA.

The U.S. Geological Survey is investigating the occurrence of antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, and other organic wastewater compounds (OWCs) entering the Tinkers Creek watershed and selected other tributaries to the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio. The Tinkers Creek watershed was chosen as a study basin after biological surveys indicated that the fish population was not exploiting the available stream habitat, yet conventional water-quality data did not explain that phenomenon. Because effluent from wastewater-treatment plants constitutes a continuous and sometimes large portion of the flow in Tinkers Creek and its tributaries, there was concern that contaminants in wastewater may have contributed to the impairment of the fish population. However, no data were available on the occurrence or distribution of OWCs in the Tinkers Creek watershed that could support or refute that concern.

The overall goal of the project is to investigate the presence and distribution of a variety of common OWCs in the Tinkers Creek watershed. The study focuses primarily on identifying the presence of OWCs in receiving waters near wastewater-treatment plant outfalls.

The presence and distribution of OWCs is being assessed by analyzing streambed sediments and media from passive-sampling devices that were deployed in the watershed over a 28-day period. The passive-sampling devices include two types of polar organic chemical integrative samplers (POCIS) and a semipermeable membrane device (SPMD). The different media contained in the passive-sampling devices are designed to sample and concentrate different classes of compounds in a fashion that provides a time-weighted measure of concentration.

For more information regarding this project, contact John Tertuliani at or (614) 430-7778. The report is available at

Antibiotics and Wastewater Compounds in Source and Finished Drinking Water from the Upper Scioto River Basin, Central Ohio (In cooperation with the City of Columbus, Division of Power and Water.)

Antibiotics and Wastewater Compounds in Source and Finished Drinking Water from the Upper Scioto River Basin, Central Ohio. As a result of recent attention on the issue of emerging contaminants in public water supplies, the City of Columbus, Ohio, has received inquiries regarding the presence of antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, and other wastewater compounds in City water supplies. A national reconnaissance study completed during 1999-2000 revealed that a variety of compounds including antimicrobials, detergents, disinfectants, fragrances, fire retardants, prescription and non-prescription drugs, can enter streams and ground water. These wastewater compounds can be released into the environment by wastewater-treatment plants (WWTPs), animal feed lots (AFOs), discharges from industrial facilities, septic disposal systems, or from land application of sludge, biosolids, or animal waste. Little is known about the occurrence, fate, or transport of these compounds and the possible health effects linked to human and aquatic life. Some of these compounds are endocrine disruptors and have been linked to negative hormonal and toxic effects in aquatic organisms; others are suspected of increasing antibiotic resistance in bacteria in the environment.

Eighty-five percent of the City’s annual water supply (roughly 27 billion gallons of water) is drawn from three reservoirs in the Upper Scioto River Basin. This portion of the basin contains several large WWTPs and AFOs that discharge into the Scioto River. On the basis of previous studies and the belief that wastewater contaminants are derived from both urban and agricultural sources (including treated sewage effluent and runoff from AFOs), the potential exists for wastewater contaminants to be present in source waters in the Basin used to supply drinking waters to residents.

The objectives of this project are to determine the occurrence and concentration of antibiotics and wastewater compounds in source waters from the Upper Scioto River Basin, and determine if antibiotics and wastewater compounds are present in drinking-water supplies before and after treatment.

The study includes the following:

  • Depth- and width-integrated stream samples collected from the following locations: Powder Lick near Somersville, Mill Creek below Marysville, Scioto River near Prospect, Big Walnut Creek at Sunbury, and the Scioto River adjacent to the Columbus Well-104.

  • Paired source and finished drinking water samples collected at three City of Columbus Water Treatment Plants: Dublin Road, Hap Cremean, and Parsons Avenue.

  • A ground-water sample collected from a production well at the Columbus South Well field.

  • Samples were collected during or immediately after rainfall events in an effort to target periods before, during, and after application of manure in the watershed. In addition, low-flow samples were collected in late summer when treated wastewater and septic tank discharge are thought to represent a larger proportion of the total streamflow than during periods of higher flow.

  • Samples were analyzed for 49 antibiotics by the Organic Geochemistry Research Lab in Lawrence Kansas, and 59 wastewater compounds by the National Water Quality Lab in Denver, Co.

This report is available for download. For more information regarding this project, contact Dennis Finnegan at or (614) 430-7731.

More information regarding emerging contaminants and other USGS projects can be obtained by contacting Greg Koltun at or (614) 430-7708.

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