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Scientists, Politicians Aim To Tackle Drugs in the Water Supply
[Rachel's Introduction: "This is where things get a little sticky," says Metcalfe. "A lot of research on risk assessment and levels in drinking water is just being done." However, the "precautionary principle suggests we must do everything we can to reduce these chemicals in drinking water."]
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By Sharda Vaidyanath, Epoch Times Parliament Hill
A partnership between politics and science in an effort to clean up Canadian waters is gaining momentum in the new session of Parliament.

Chris Metcalfe, a professor in Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University, brought cutting edge science to explain the effects of "subtle contaminants" such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) to Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

PPCPs include prescription and over-the-counter therapeutic drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances, cosmetics, sun-screen products, diagnostic agents and nutraceuticals such as vitamins.

PPCPs find their way into water and soil through excretion residues from pharmaceutical manufacturing and hospitals, illicit drug use and veterinary drugs used in agribusiness, especially antibiotics and steroids.

"The source is us," says Metcalfe.

Just back from a workshop in the United Kingdom, Metcalfe says his European colleagues "are quite shocked at how little of the advanced waste water management technology is used in Canada."

Advanced scientific technology to identify these toxins began in Europe about a dozen years ago but in Canada it has only been in existence since 2001.

Because of under-funding, many municipalities still have only basic or primary water treatment facilities, and the latest technology to detect PPCPs doesn't come cheap.

Metcalfe leads Trent University's state-of-the-art microenvironment laboratory that will use new technology to develop more effective environmental management plans related to energy development, water protection, transportation and community health.

It is the most sophisticated scientific equipment in North America with a price tag of about half a million dollars, says Metcalfe, who has done testing for municipalities in Alberta and Waterloo.

"We're certainly at an advantage because our source water, the Ottawa River, has a huge watershed upstream of us with very, very little population or discharges in it. From that point of view, this isn't one of the rivers that is expected to have significant compounds in it," said Dixon Weir, director of Water and Waste Water Service for the City of Ottawa.

However, Weir adds, "we're in a fact-finding, fact-gathering exercise," and in 2008, the city will be going forward with a sampling program to test for PPCPs at a cost of $20,000 for eight water samples.

Politicians have been talking about the plight of Canada's waters for a long time and last week Liberal MP Paul Steckle reminded the House that the health of the Great Lakes, a source of fresh water for industry, residents, commercial fishery and tourist trade, has been neglected.

"Water levels are down and bacteria levels are up. Beaches are closed during summer and invasive species are ravaging the ecosystem," said Steckle.

Bloc Quebecois MP Guy Andre told the House about a private member's bill which aims to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act "to prohibit the manufacturing, sale or import into Canada of dishwashing or laundry detergents that contain phosphorous."

Andre said the presence of phosphorus has caused widespread cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, which poses a public health risk "as potential irritants, allergens and toxins."

In Quebec, the situation is worsening with each passing year, said Andre. "This phenomenon affected 50 lakes in 2005, 107 in 2006, and nearly 200 in 2007."

Synthetic hormones such as estrogen, thyroid replacement pills, blood lipid regulators and anti-depressants have all been detected in surface and ground water.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website says PPCPs are bioactive chemicals or substances that have an effect on living tissue.

And while certain drugs and chemicals can cause ecological harm, the EPA says there's no evidence of adverse human health effects from PPCPs in the environment.

However, the Health Canada website says "Complex mixtures of chemicals in drinking water and recycled water could have additive, synergistic or even antagonistic effects, even when concentrations of the individual chemicals are very low or comply with water quality guideline values."

"This is where things get a little sticky," says Metcalfe. "A lot of research on risk assessment and levels in drinking water is just being done." However, the "precautionary principle suggests we must do everything we can to reduce these chemicals in drinking water."

Metcalfe says 60 percent of waste water sludge is dumped onto agricultural lands. "I get a lot of phone calls about that from concerned citizens."

Buying bottled water isn't the solution and in many cases the water quality may be worse than tap water, he says, adding that paying more taxes to upgrade water treatment facilities is a greater return on investment.

Protecting water quality at the source rather than at the distribution end would avoid incidents such as the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton in 2000 when nearly half the city's population fell ill and several people died, says Metcalfe.

As for the cosmetic industry, thanks author Paula Begoun's pioneering work in the 1990s, organic cosmetics using less harmful ingredients are becoming increasingly popular. In Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me, Begoun exposed the chemicals used in cosmetics and their inflated claims and prices.

Metcalfe recommends using "green label" household products and returning unused or outdated drugs to pharmacists as part of the solution to cleaning up our water.

Ontario passed its Clean Water Act last year and currently the Canadian Council of Environmental Ministers is in the consultation process and will be producing a report to help both federal and provincial governments with better legislation.

Canada's regulatory approach is moving in lockstep with the U.S. says Metcalfe.

Copyright (c) 2000 -- 2008 The Epoch USA, Inc.

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