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Toxicologists discuss drugs in the water, other issues

SEATTLE – Pharmaceuticals in the water supply, melamine in the pet food, a warning against giving young children cough medicine.

As 7,000 scientists and regulators from 45 countries gather in Seattle this week, those are some of the top issues on the agenda.

“The public has a right to know the answers to these questions,” Dr. George Corcoran, president of the Society of Toxicology, said over the weekend. “Our vision is to create a safer and healthier world by advancing the science of toxicology. That’s our reason for living.”

The society, based in Reston, Va., is holding its annual meeting at the Washington State Convention Center, one week after the Associated Press published an investigation that found tiny amounts of drugs – mostly residue excreted by people and flushed down the toilet – in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

In addition to documenting the drugs found, the report discussed how little is known about whether there are long-term effects from having pharmaceuticals in the water supply.

Scientists have known for several years that pharmaceuticals were entering the water, Corcoran said, and the Society of Toxicology found the issue important enough to discuss it at its annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., last year. But publicity surrounding the Associated Press report has created a buzz for this year’s meeting.

“Last year, there was a consensus: Yes, we need to do more on this, and this is something we have to watch,” Corcoran said.

“The AP story has really put the spotlight on it. … People are going to start putting money into studying this now, instead of a few years from now, and we’ll get the answers sooner than we would have otherwise.”

The session on the topic is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon and will be led by Daniel Caldwell, of Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., and Hal Zenick from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Among the other topics being covered:

• Children’s cough and cold medicines: The FDA has declared over-the-counter cough and cold medicines too risky for children younger than 2, and the agency’s advisers voted that the drugs don’t work in small children and shouldn’t be given to anyone younger than 6.

• Findings from the investigation into last year’s pet food scare, in which the toxic chemical melamine was found in pet food imported from China. Thousands of dogs and cats died, and two Chinese businesses and a U.S. company were later indicted.

• A look at a potential link between chemicals used in plastics, such as phthalates, and puberty in girls as young as 9 and whether that is also connected to breast cancer.

• How toxicological studies can be used to identify the greatest threats to Puget Sound.