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No drugs in Spokane water

Thu., Aug. 21, 2008

Large cities finding traces of pharmaceuticals in drinking water

Responding to a national report earlier this year that traces of pharmaceuticals are showing up in America’s drinking water, the Spokane Water Department has spent about $3,000 to test the city’s water supply for drug residue.

The results showed no traces of pharmaceuticals from samples taken from two city wells.

The Associated Press reported last March that pharmaceuticals have been showing up in water systems in more heavily populated areas such as Southern California, northern New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Drugs often are not fully metabolized by the body and become part of a community’s wastewater and when discharged into another body of water, they can apparently work their way into drinking water. In Spokane, wastewater officials have said they are expecting that sewage treatment plants may someday be required to remove drug residues before discharging effluent into the environment.

Kristine Graf, water quality coordinator for the city of Spokane, said the AP report in March alerted local officials to the potential threat to the region’s drinking water, and they wanted to find out if the problem was occurring here, too.

“We are basically trying to be proactive,” she said.

Most of the drinking water in the Spokane, Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene area is taken from a relatively clean underground water supply that flows into the region from mountainous areas mostly to the northeast of Spokane in what’s essentially an underground river. Water in the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer works its way through glacial flood deposits along the region’s broad valley.

The Spokane River, Lake Pend Oreille and other water bodies are interconnected to the aquifer. Officials have long been concerned that contamination could come from surface water, septic tanks and spills on the ground above the aquifer, including incidents such as a sewage spill discovered last week in Post Falls.

“We were concerned because of the fact that they did find it in drinking water back East,” Graf said. “We were pleasantly surprised.”

She said samples were taken from a well near the water department’s facilities at North Foothills Drive and Hamilton Street and a second well near Parkwater, the site of a large rail yard in east Spokane.

Spokane County has proposed building a new wastewater treatment plant for the vicinity of Freya Street and Trent Avenue, and the tests will provide a baseline to compare with future tests downstream from the county plant site once it starts processing sewage, Graf said.

The Spokane samples were sent to Axys Analytical Services of Sidney, B.C., which promotes itself as “a world leader in ultra-trace analysis of persistent organic pollutants and emerging organic contaminants.” Axys screened the samples for a large number of common drugs.

In Philadelphia, traces of 63 pharmaceuticals included drugs to treat pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. New York’s upstate drinking water supply had traces of estrogen, anti-convulsants and a tranquilizer among others.

The drugs were found in amounts measured in parts per trillion, which is equivalent to one drop of water in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools, Graf said in a press release.

The AP investigative report said there is concern about the effect of drug residues in drinking water, but the risk to health is not clear. A microbiologist for the drug industry said there is little risk, but another drug scientist at a conference last year acknowledged the concern for human health.

Graf said the risk of drug contamination should be a reminder of how important it is to protect the area’s water supply. She said residents should remember not to dump contaminants on the ground. “It’s up to us to help maintain this” clean water, she said.

Mike Prager can be reached at 459-5454 or by e-mail at

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