On a recent rainy spring morning, a sea of coffee-colored sludge bubbles in the bioreactors at Missoula's wastewater treatment plant, just south of Mullan Road by North Reserve Street. Each square cell in the long channel of bioreactors houses a unique tribe of microbial warriors. Aerobic levels—high, medium, and no oxygen—are tailor-made. Such conditions make good bacteria feel at home. They thrive here, growing strong enough to eat bad bugs like e-coli, salmonella, and giardia. "They're chewing away, doing their thing," says Starr Sullivan, the plant supervisor, as he stands above the percolating pools.
The wastewater is then sent to a clarifier, where any remaining bacterial bits are removed. UV lights resembling fluorescent tubes further sterilize rogue bacteria before the water is pumped into the Clark Fork River. "You have an instant kill," Sullivan says. "Whatever can die, we're killing it."
The problem may be that there are things in the water that apparently can't die. Manufactured chemical compounds, for example, such as the residue of drugs we take, linger. Curious about those things that linger, Tabetha Lynch made them the focus of her recent thesis project for a master's degree in geosciences at the University of Montana.
Lynch, who is 29, gathered sediments at various points around Missoula to chart the ways that everyday drugs such as ibuprofen and caffeine, as well as more exotic drugs such as MDMA and cocaine, degrade over time. She tested groundwater, and she tested drinking water, sampling from the deep production wells that bring it from the Missoula aquifer up to city faucets. A previous study had shown that drugs migrate from human users into shallow groundwater, but no one had ever tested for them in production wells, which draw from a deeper place. Working with support from the Mountain Water Company and Missoula's water quality district, Lynch also tested treated wastewater from the plant off Mullan Road. Human waste is a primary source of pharmaceuticals in the environment. It made sense to start at the source.
Her results are like a chemical profile of Missoula: caffeine and anti-anxiety drugs with a dash of muscle relaxants, among other things.
"We found carbamezipine, which is an anticonvulsant," says Lynch, who graduated last winter and now works as a hydrogeologist for the international consulting firm ARCADIS U.S.
Both times that she tested at the treatment plant, in September and March of 2010, she also found fluoxetine, the active ingredient in Prozac. Traces of that drug also showed up in the Clark Fork near the university, which perhaps shouldn't be surprising. Fluoxetine has been showing up in waterways across the country.
And then there's the hardy antibiotic sulfamethoxazole, which is prescribed for infections of the ear and the urinary tract as well as for bronchitis and acne. It shows up in water all over the world, Lynch says—including in two Mountain Water wells, one at Maurice Avenue and the other at Palmer Street.
To get a pill's worth of these drugs, a human would have to drink in the neighborhood of two million gallons of treated wastewater. Still, the traces are there, as scientists such as Lynch are discovering, armed with new, more precise testing systems. It's not known what effects such drugs in the environment have on humans, but studies show they're changing aquatic life. Male fish are losing their secondary sex characteristics. And some biologists say such disturbances in fish indicate that humans could be next.
Missoula's groundwater moves fast. And there's a lot of it. However, as population growth meets a rise in pharmaceutical use, Lynch says, it's important to study impacts of such compounds now.
"Eventually, they do build up. And they become possibly a problem, especially things like sulfamethoxazole...It is a very low therapeutic dose for people. But we don't really know what putting antibiotics into the environment is doing to other things. There's been studies that have shown that antibiotics disrupt things in fish and they disrupt different life cycles of microbes. If you put antibiotics in the water, are you killing the natural fauna in the river? Or, are you building up antibiotic resistance? I mean, there are bigger questions."
An icy dam blocked the Clark Fork River as it entered Idaho from Montana more than 10,000 years ago. Behind the dam to the southeast lay Glacial Lake Missoula. Two thousand feet deep, it sprawled out over 200 miles, from Deer Lodge to Seeley Lake and from Libby to Darby. The dam melted and froze in cycles, sending floods carrying massive ice chunks and boulders that cut deep grooves in the earth for miles around.
Missoula Water Quality District Director Peter Nielsen has dedicated much of his life to water. He was the executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition before signing on to the City-County Health Department 20 years ago. Typically subdued, his voice quickens when he talks about Glacial Lake Missoula. "It created the geography of western Montana," he says.
Flood-and-fill cycles shaped the stepped tiers that ring Mount Jumbo today, reflecting Glacial Lake Missoula's former shorelines. Boulders, cobble, and gravel carried in the floods carved out lands to the west, all the way to Oregon's Columbia River Gorge. Over time, they settled, forming a massive underground storage tank that's now topped by porous soil: the Missoula Aquifer.
The aquifer is the valley's primary water source. Rain and snow feed it via runoff from the Clark Fork River. In some places, groundwater that runs through the aquifer touches the surface. Such intimate proximity means Missoula's water supply is extremely vulnerable. "The Missoula Aquifer is our lifeblood," Nielsen says. "It is really the only reliable source of water we have. And we live on top of it."
Over the years, Missoula's water supply has been tainted in places. The worst crisis was—and to a certain extent, remains—arsenic contamination at Milltown Dam, at the aquifer's mouth. For more than 100 years, mining and milling wastes from Anaconda and Butte were released into the upper Clark Fork. The sludge, contaminated with arsenic and heavy metals, accumulated behind the Milltown Dam. Reservoir sediments were releasing 105 pounds of arsenic per day into the Missoula Aquifer when Missoula County health officials detected the contamination, in 1981. Levels in wells at Milltown ranged from 220 to 510 parts of arsenic per billion. The federal drinking water standard for arsenic is 10 parts per billion.
Even today, some 150 years after mining operations began in Butte, almost 30 years after the reservoir was declared a Superfund site, and not quite two years after the last sediments were hauled off in trains, wells near the reservoir are contaminated with arsenic, a carcinogen. "It's known to cause five or six different types of cancer," Nielsen says. "And not just in lab rats—in humans."
Mining is part of Montana's past. It could also be in the state's future. Meanwhile, Montanans are taking more drugs, and more complex drugs, than ever before. Samples taken from the Clark Fork River show caffeine, anti-seizure medications, and cholesterol drugs. "They're in the river, they're also in the ground water," says Jon Harvala, an environmental health specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department.
"We as a people ingest a lot of chemical compounds," Harvala says. "Perhaps we ought to be more careful about what we ingest. That's the real issue—we're a pharmaceutical nation."
Nielsen concurs. "I can't blame Exxon or something for it," he says. "It's something that I did. It's really not the wastewater plant that's the source, it's us."
'The average citizen probably doesn't know'
Sharp peaks, whispering waterfalls, and tall pines surround the Hyalite Reservoir, an 8,000-acre-foot body of water in the Gallatin National Forest. This is where Bozeman's water comes from. It's piped from the reservoir to the Sourdough Water Treatment Plant, where millions of gallons daily are filtered and chlorinated before they're sent to Bozeman consumers. Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology hydrologist Gary Icopini is finishing up a two-year study, like Lynch's work in Missoula, aiming to gauge the resiliency of manmade chemicals in Bozeman's water supply.
Icopini's findings are strikingly similar to Lynch's. He tested 28 water supply wells located across Bozeman. Sulfamethoxazole showed up in 11. Four wells contained the anti-seizure medication carbamazipine. The active ingredient in Prozac popped up in five wells.
"Those three chemicals are highly recalcitrant," Icopini says. "They stick around a long time."
Icopini and Lynch's research reflects findings in Helena. In 2005, the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology and the state Department of Environmental Quality tested 35 domestic wells serving the Helena valley. They uncovered a chemical cocktail of 22 compounds including antibiotics, painkillers, and anti-inflammatory and seizure-control drugs, along with anti-depressants, estrogens, and androgens (which are typically considered a male hormone, though they're also naturally present in women). As with the Missoula study, researchers found small amounts of caffeine, plasticizers, insect repellent, and herbicide.
With fewer people to worry about, Montana water managers have less pharmaceutical waste to manage than their counterparts in larger urban populations. But according to a study completed in 2000 by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that tested for 95 chemicals in 139 streams downstream from urbanized areas or livestock operations in 30 states, one or more chemicals were detected in 80 percent of the streams. Eighty-two of the 95 chemicals tested for showed up at least once. As the USGS findings indicate, wells positioned at lower elevations from wastewater treatment plants are especially vulnerable, even in Montana.
Icopini's tests indicate that drug concentrations in nearby water supplies located downhill from sewage treatment plants are hundreds of times greater than those found in wells elsewhere—and such treatment plants dot the state. Montanans who live below wastewater treatment facilities likely figured out by taste that "their water was nasty fairly early on," Icopini says. In that case, people typically opt to have their drinking water treated onsite. However, as ground and surface waters flow and residual waste dilutes, the water doesn't taste bad, meaning those who live a bit farther down the line from a treatment plant could be consuming significantly higher concentrations of chemicals than the typical water user. "The average citizen probably does not know," Icopini says.
Fish on drugs
On a recent spring day, Nielsen points to a rusty steel Mountain Water observation well that pokes up from a green ball field not far from the university's Adams Center. "We've got these all over town," Nielsen says, as a cold breeze blows through the budding trees.
The padlocked well, just off the Clark Fork River Trail, is unassuming but important. It provides a window with a view of what's in our water.
Lynch found DEET, BPA, antibiotics, and caffeine there.
Across a parking lot, there's a brown building with a chain link fence topped by barbed wire. Inside the building is a large well that steadily pulls water from deep in the aquifer and pumps it to area residents.
Lynch found antibiotics there.
Inside another production well on the other side of town, at Palmer Street, Lynch found the weed killer atrazine, likely seeping from agricultural runoff via the river into the aquifer.
Nielsen says atrazine levels in the Palmer Street well are far below those considered dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, the herbicide continues to generate significant debate. The European Union banned it in 2007. It remains legal in the U.S. as the EPA reviews scientific claims that assert, among other things, that pregnant women exposed to very small amounts—1 part per billion, versus Missoula's even smaller concentration of 2.9 parts per trillion—have babies with low birth weights.
Alerted to possible health concerns from the drug, dozens of drinking water operators in six states filed a class action lawsuit last year. City of Greenville, Illinois, et al. v. Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc. claims that atrazine's manufacturer, Syngenta, sold the product aware that runoff could affect waterways. The plaintiffs are asking the court to compel the company to cover the cost of removing the chemical from public water supplies.
Some researchers say atrazine is an endocrine disruptor that triggers changes in hormonal balances among fish, birds, reptiles, frogs, and people.
According to data collected by the USGS between 2004 and 2009, 80 percent of male bass in the Potomac River (in a very urbanized area) exhibited some degree of feminization. Aquatic life is also being impacted in smaller communities. When University of Colorado Professor David Norris and his colleagues set up a fish tank in a trailer next to a wastewater treatment facility outside the city of Boulder in 2006, they were shocked at what they found.
Prior to a recent treatment plant upgrade, one week's worth of exposure to wastewater mixed with Boulder Creek water caused adult male fathead minnows to begin losing masculine characteristics. Minnows stopped exhibiting horny nuptial tubercles, pimple-like protrusions on their heads used in courtship and for manipulating eggs. A black mark on the fish's fins, also a secondary sex characteristic, vanished.
"They behave like females," Norris told the Indy this month. "It was very dramatic."
Norris says fish are responding to an array of chemicals put into the environment. Pharmaceuticals, atrazine, plasticizers such as BPA, and byproducts from personal care products, like lotions, cosmetics, shampoo, and soap, are compounds that Norris refers to as an "estrogen suite," all capable of triggering hormonal changes. "You sort of have to look at the whole package," he says.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Fish Management Section Supervisor Don Skaar says he's not heard of any feminized male fish swimming in Montana streams—but then, he says, "nor have we really looked."
Norris says even the trace amounts of BPA and pharmaceuticals that are showing up in the Clark Fork could be enough to trigger hormonal changes. "These very, very small concentrations are environmentally relevant."
Antidepressants also affect fish. According to professors Vance Trudeau and Tom Moon of the University of Ottawa, male goldfish exposed to fluoxetine lose interest in sex, ignoring signs female goldfish exhibit indicating they're ready to mate. Similarly, according to Norris's work, even 25 nanograms per liter of fluoxetine—Missoula effluent tests conducted by Lynch in March 2010 found 100 nanograms per liter—have been shown to put fish at a distinct disadvantage. They have a hard time responding to predators. "If the fish is on fluoxetine, it's slower," Norris says, adding that predatory fish that eat smaller fish also begin acting differently. "They started showing funny behaviors."
Norris says as humans individually and collectively alter the chemical composition of our environment, the environment will continue to shape us. "It's important to be aware that the fish endocrine system works just like our endocrine system. And so, anything we say is true for fish is true for us. When we look at the mammalian fetus, it's much, much, much more sensitive to all of these chemicals than are adult humans. Fish are sort of the tip of the iceberg."
This could be expensive
Fish around Missoula's wastewater treatment plant look healthy enough, Starr Sullivan says from inside his tidy office, where the smell is not nearly as pungent.
Sullivan displays a picture of two men in yellow vests and hardhats. They're taking a break from an excavation project near the banks of the Clark Fork River and holding up a fat silver trout they found in an underground channel, just below the surface. The trout was trying to get into the wastewater plant. Fish flock to the plant, he says. Wastewater piped into the river is warm; fish like that. Plus, red worms, and midges, little winged bugs that resemble mosquitoes, hatch in sediments at the bottom of the plant's ultraviolet light banks, providing a tasty lure. "This is like the Golden Corral for those fish," Sullivan says.
Sullivan jokes. He also admits that he, like water experts across the country, is grappling with a very new set of questions. The effect of pharmaceuticals in our water is "a tough issue," he says. "The industry is concerned about it."
Wastewater treatment systems capable of more effectively filtering out manmade chemicals are now online. As with evaluating water for chemical compounds, which runs about $1,000 each test, such "reverse osmosis" systems are extremely expensive. An investment like that could be a tough if not impossible sell.
"It's kind of problematic," Sullivan says. "You either get people to quit taking pharmaceuticals, or you build hugely expensive treatment systems for it."
Despite the financial challenges, increased regulation could be coming down the pike. Congress and the EPA have for years debated launching a more comprehensive study of an array of chemicals thought to trigger endocrine disruption. For the first time, in 2009, the agency proposed implementing safe drinking water standards for pharmaceuticals—specifically, erythromycin, and hormones such as estradiol, and estrone, which is present in Missoula's treated wastewater. Still, that effort will require backing from Congress along with a significant financial commitment to become a reality, says R. Thomas Zoeller, a biologist who specializes in endocrinology and serves on the EPA's Science Advisory Board, which provides technical expertise to the agency.
"We need to give them the tools and the budget to do that kind of work," he says. "What we are talking about are chemicals that are in every baby born in this country."
Zoeller is troubled that neither chemical manufacturers nor regulators have incorporated the tools necessary to grasp to how endocrine-disrupting compounds are affecting the environment. "Modern science has simply been left out of the regulatory apparatus," he says. "We can't continue to do that."
Congress in 2010 failed to pass legislation that would have mandated greater scrutiny of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Another attempt is now underway. In February, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Enhancement Act of 2011, which would require the EPA to test at least 100 compounds that have been found in drinking water within four years, to evaluate how they may alter hormone systems. The legislation would also require the EPA to develop guidelines within two years for updating regular testing protocols.
Mountain Water general manager Arvid Hiller says more science is a good thing. "Always you should let the science first dictate what makes sense," he says. And he adds that water is just one route of many that chemicals might take into the human body. "It makes you wonder when you eat that head of lettuce, how much atrazine is in it," he says.
Implementing stronger water safety standards is a good place to start greater protections of human health, Zoeller says. "Without an adequate safety measurement or regulatory tool, we make ourselves vulnerable. We should not wait around...This is not a trivial issue."