Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Anti-Depressant Found in Water
Very Depressing for Fish

By Jennifer McKee
Journal Staff Writer
    Scientists at the New Mexico Environment Department have found trace residues of a prescription anti-depressant in treated effluent from the Santa Fe sewage treatment plant.
    The findings are tiny 30 parts per trillion of amitriptyline, a common anti-depressant but the implications significant.
    The drug was found late last year in water released directly from the Santa Fe waste water treatment plant, said Dennis McQuillan, a geologist with the New Mexico Environment Department.
    Santa Fe's treated waste water is discharged into the Santa Fe River. For most of the year, the Santa Fe River does not flow through town, as the water is held high in the watershed in two drinking water reservoirs. The river starts up again after the waste water treatment plant, but that water is nothing but treated effluent.
    Nonetheless, McQuillan said, the concentrations of drugs found in all water in New Mexico, including that in the Santa Fe River, are too tiny to cause any problems for people drinking it. Scientists found no evidence of drug residue in any tap water in the state.
    "This is an emerging issue," he said. "We're just beginning to understand what this is all about."
    Common sewage treatment techniques do not remove drugs those not absorbed by the body and passed more or less intact into the toilet bowl, McQuillan said.
    The problem first surfaced in Europe a few years ago, when scientists in Sweden went looking for pesticides in streams and found cholesterol- lowering medication instead. They soon found synthetic estrogen either from estrogen replacement injections or birth control pills in many European waters.
    In almost all cases, McQuillan said, the quantities were tiny, not likely to hurt humans drinking the water, but enough to wreak hormonal havoc for fish.
    In Britain, for example, male fish living downstream from sewer treatment plants are bathing in so much estrogen, both natural and synthetic, some of them have started to develop female characteristics, according to a report by the New Mexico Environment Department.
    While nothing that serious has turned up here, Environment Department Secretary Pete Maggiore said Monday that drug-residue in state waters is one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the state today.
    New Mexico officials started testing sewage effluent and sewer contaminated ground water last year, McQuillan said. They found a host of drug residues, all in tiny quantities, but detectable through very sensitive techniques.
    In northern New Mexico, the scientists found an anti-convulsant drug and a painkiller categorized as a narcotic by the Federal Drug Administration in treated sewage from Espaņola. The same drugs were found in slightly lower concentrations in an effluent ditch near Espaņola.
    They found amitriptyline, an anti-depressant sold under the trade name Elavil, in Santa Fe treated effluent and in the Rio Grande near Buckman Crossing. The drug is also prescribed to treat fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis, according to WebMD.com.
    McQuillan said the findings, while somewhat disgusting in principle, do not mean the effluent is dangerous for people. Just what the tiny concentrations of water mean for aquatic life remains to be seen.
    He said the state will continue studying waste water around the state and plans to retest some sites for different kinds of drugs, like antibiotics, which the state lab did not have the technology to detect until this year.
    Scientists found no evidence of drug residue in tap water, he said. Nonetheless, an activated-carbon water filter, available in most department stores, will remove drug residue.
    McQuillan suggests users of the filters should be careful. The wet carbon nuggets in the filters are breeding grounds for bacteria, so the filters must be replaced frequently.