Fifty-six chemicals, cocaine widespread in lakes and rivers

by Kate Golden Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Minnesota researchers found 56 chemicals — including cocaine — in the state’s waters, according to two studies released Monday that raise questions about potential impacts on wildlife and human health.

Environmental experts said the discoveries in lakes, rivers and streams increase the pressure on Wisconsin to figure out what’s in its water. A key Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources official said that the state’s waters were likely also contaminated, but that the state had no money for such monitoring.

The chemicals were detected at trace amounts in 47 of 50 Minnesota lakes, including many in relatively pristine parts of the state.

Some of the most troubling chemicals are thought to be endocrine disruptors, which can block or act like hormones in people and wildlife. They are used in pharmaceuticals, personal care products and industrial processes, but are largely unregulated.

Cocaine, to the surprise of researchers, turned up in samples from a third of the state’s lakes. Another surprisingly common find was an antibiotic approved for use only on swine.

Along with Minnesota’s past work, the studies “suggest that PPCPs (pharmaceuticals and personal care products) and endocrine active chemicals are widespread in lakes and rivers, and that fish are likely altered on genetic, cellular, organism, and population levels when exposed to the chemicals that find their way into surface water from a variety of sources,” wrote Mark Ferrey, the Pollution Control Agency researcher who conducted the two studies.

Former Wisconsin DNR secretary George Meyer said the tests show that Wisconsin, which has not conducted similar studies on this scale, needs to develop a plan to figure out what’s in its water.

“It’s the old adage ‘If you don’t look, there’s not a problem,’ right?” said Meyer, now the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen’s conservation group. “The public needs to know what’s in the water and what the significance of that is.”

Meyer said it was highly likely that Wisconsin’s lakes would show a similar chemical profile to Minnesota’s — and might show, he added, “possibly even a higher level of chemicals.”

“I think we should thank Minnesota for bringing some light to this issue,” said Melissa Malott, water program director of Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy group. “It doesn’t in any way change my opinion that we should be doing something about this in Wisconsin.”

Minnesota has one of the nation’s most ambitious state-level testing programs for unregulated contaminants in surface waters.

The Minnesota agency’s statement did not speculate on potential human effects, which were beyond the scope of the study.

Experts say fish are more vulnerable to surface water pollution than people because they live in water, so they get more exposure. Previous Minnesota studies have documented endocrine disruption in fish from the Mississippi River and other contaminated waters.

But the chemicals are of growing concern to people, too: A United Nations report in February noted the rise in endocrine-related disorders like cancer, obesity, early puberty and infertility and identified widespread pollution as a “global threat” to wildlife and people.

Science on chemicals’ presence in the environment has exploded since a landmark 2002 U.S. Geological Survey study found them widespread in streams and groundwater susceptible to contamination.

But much of the science so far has focused on waters assumed to be polluted, like those receiving wastewater treatment plant effluent, while the waters in the two new Minnesota studies were chosen randomly. The studies also were unusual for the large number of samples, which can produce more statistically robust results.

“This study shows these compounds are out there, and that gives more supporting evidence that you should do these studies in other states,” said Dana Kolpin, the USGS scientist who led the 2002 study. “It wouldn’t be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Questions remained, Kolpin said, about how septic systems, recreational water use, wastewater treatment plants and other sources each contributed to contamination.

Ferrey agreed and said that was the next step.

“Will we see correlations between land use and the appearance of the chemicals that we detected in these lakes or rivers?” Ferrey said. “We just haven’t done that kind of analysis yet.”

A warning for Wisconsin?

A Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report published in April found that Wisconsin’s research on endocrine disruptors is poorly funded and loosely coordinated.

A January 2012 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources document identified pharmaceuticals and personal care products in surface waters as a concern due to their potential connection with the intersex fish that have been found in the Great Lakes and elsewhere.

“In an effort to be proactive and protective of humans and wildlife, Wisconsin should consider developing water quality standards for these pharmaceutical byproducts,” the report said, and noted that DNR needed more monitoring data “to determine the scale of this potential problem.”

Susan Sylvester, head of the DNR’s surface water bureau, said Monday she was “impressed” with the Minnesota report. And she agreed with Meyer that contamination in Wisconsin’s waters was likely similar.

“We think it’s out there,” Sylvester said. “But I don’t have a budget for monitoring for these chemicals right now.”

She added: “The question is, if we find it, what do we do with that information? We need to have a plan for what to do with it.”

But Meyer asked why, if Wisconsin lacked the funding, the DNR had not asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fund such work, as Minnesota did.

“This is very concerning, and it shows that in fact the state has moved away from being a very proactive state in ensuring that our waterways and our fish and our citizens are being protected,” Meyer said.

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