Technology & Science

Look at everyday chemicals in water, Ontario told

Ontario must do more to investigate whether chemicals in the water supply from shampoos, soaps and pharmaceuticals pose a risk.

Ontario must do more to investigate whether potentially dangerous chemicals in the water supply coming from everyday shampoos, soaps and pharmaceuticals pose a threat to people's health and the ecosystem, the province's environmental commissioner says.

There is a pressing need for the province not just to monitor the spread of such chemicals, but to spend millions on research and get on top of the threat posed by pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), Gord Miller said.

The chemicals showing up in water around the world come from:

  • Run-offcontaining chemicals used on farms.
  • Antibiotics or other discarded medicationpoured down the toilet or sink.
  • Medication found in human waste.
  • Run-off from antibacterial soaps and shampoos.

They travel through the septic system and can make their way back into source and drinking water because sewage treatment plants aren't equipped to get rid of them.

In her recent annual report on Ontario's drinking water, Environment Minister Laurel Broten highlighted PPCPs as an emerging threat, and said the province is doing a survey to find out how much of the chemicals are in the water.

But Miller — who warned about the threat of pharmaceuticals in his 2005 annual report — said that's not enough. The province should put millions into investigating thechemicals' impacton animals and their ecosystems to determine what they might do to humans, Miller said in an interview.

"We tend to focus primarily on human health. That's important, but the alarms go off too late if you're already poisoning people."

It's an increasing problem that the province needs to get on top of, he added. "We have to spend some money now to find out what's going on."

The threat is only going to grow, Miller said. As the population continues to grow and baby boomers age, medication use will increase.

Maureen Carter-Whitney, research director with the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, said scientists are still trying to determine just what impact pharmaceutical chemicals can have on both humans and animals.

Generally, she said, the chemicals are only found in the water in small amounts, but they are "always there."

Studies conducted in northwestern Ontario suggest the chemicals can contribute to infertility in animals, delayed reproductive development, and damage to the liver and kidneys.

The chemicals can also contribute to antibiotic resistance, Carter-Whitney said. "It's at the point where it's a threat, but it's a threat we need to start doing something about," she said.

"It's the whole notion of the precautionary principle. We don't want to wait another 20 years and realize we have a whole generation of infertile young men."

Jim Smith, the province's chief drinking-water inspector, said Ontario has one of the most sophisticated systems in the world to protect its drinking water. The system has been strengthened since the Walkerton tainted water tragedy of May 2000, when E. coli contamination caused seven deaths and thousands of illnesses.

$400K set for PPCPs projects

There are always emerging threats that the province is now required to publicly report on and investigate, he said. The government set aside $400,000 last year to fund 20 research projects examining PPCPs, and labs are now working on analyzing this set of chemicals, Smith said.

It will likely take the province up to five years to get a handle on the current science and act on it,he said.

"As chief inspector, do I feel that I'm being protected? Yes. Do I feel that the right steps are being taken? Yes," Smith said. "We're as current as any leading jurisdiction in the world."

The province is waitingfor the federal government to develop standards on how much of these chemicals are acceptable in source and tap water. It is also conducting its own studies, including onethat found some 50 different types of PPCPs in the Grand River just outside of Hamilton.

People can do their part as well to keep such chemicals out of the system in the first place by returning their old or unused medication to a pharmacy, which can dispose of it properly, Broten said.