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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."