By Kate Golden
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Minnesota researchers found 56 chemicals — including cocaine — in the state’s waters, according to two recent studies 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.
Minnesota’s work, which cost $250,000 just for the tests, was funded in part by the EPA as well as a voter-approved sales tax that pours millions into a Clean Water Fund each year. The Pollution Control Agency has spent $1.8 million on endocrine disruptors research since 2008. The U.S. Geological Survey helped fund previous studies.
What’s in the lakes
The most commonly detected chemical was the insect repellent DEET, found in 76 percent of the lakes. That was expected and similar to earlier, smaller studies.
DEET’s effects on the environment at the concentrations found are “not known,” the report said.
Carbadox, an antibiotic approved for use only on swine, was in 28 percent of the lakes.
Minnesota has plenty of pigs, ranking third in hog production nationwide, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. (Wisconsin ranks 18th.)
But many of the carbadox detections were nowhere near swine or other livestock facilities, which the report called “perplexing.”
“Whether this indicates that carbadox is being used for off-label purposes or if it is transported to lakes through unknown mechanisms is not clear,” the report said, adding that carbadox, a carcinogen, is banned in Canada and the European Union.
Potential endocrine disruptors found in Minnesota waters included:
• Bisphenol A (BPA), a component of plastic, in 43 percent of the lakes. BPA has been banned in sippy cups and baby bottles. It was originally developed as an estrogen.
• Nonylphenol, a byproduct of commonly used surfactants that acts like estrogen on lab animals, in 10 percent of the lakes.
• The hormone androstenedione, a precursor to estrogen and testosterone that is sometimes taken as a hormone supplement known as “andro,” in 30 percent of the lakes.
• Triclosan, a common disinfectant often found in antibacterial hand soaps, in 14 percent of the lakes. It has been found to break down into dioxins in surface waters; they can be highly toxic at tiny concentrations.
Antidepressants were commonly found in lakes, streams and rivers at concentrations that can change fish reproductive and predator-response behaviors. The most common was amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant or TCA whose brand names include Amitid, Elavil and Endep.
A third of the stream and river samples contained methyl parabens, preservatives used in food and cosmetics. Parabens are “not considered toxic, but are reportedly weakly estrogenic,” according to the study.
Concern about trace amounts
Cocaine just happened to be part of a broader suite of chemicals that were analyzed — but the illicit drug turned up in samples from a third of the state’s lakes.
There wasn’t enough cocaine in the water to get anyone high.
Most chemicals were detected at exceedingly low concentrations — in the low parts per trillion. One part per trillion is about a drop in 20 Olympic swimming pools. The most cocaine, for example, was found at 5.3 parts per trillion, in Norway Lake, about 100 miles west of Minneapolis.
These amounts may seem too small to be worrisome, but a growing body of research suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be potent at such concentrations. In 2007, Canadian researcher Karen Kidd showed that adding a common contraceptive at five parts per trillion caused the minnow population of a lake to collapse.
Cocaine’s source a mystery
It is still unclear how the chemicals got into the waters, Ferrey wrote, as well as whether they persist and accumulate in the environment.
Most are manmade, though some of the hormones are produced by wildlife. Wastewater treatment plants are “undoubtedly” one of the sources, the study said, “but this study suggests that there are other sources of these chemicals to our lake environment that are difficult to pinpoint or quantify.”
Shoreline residences are a likely source for many of the lakes, the study said.
European researchers have found cocaine recently in air and surface waters. United States researchers have done less on the topic but have found cocaine in sewage and biosolids or waters influenced by wastewater treatment plants, the report said.
The Minnesota report, apparently for the first time, found the drug in lakes that weren’t associated with wastewater treatment plants — or even public access.
That suggested an indirect route, the study said.
Ferrey hypothesized, from analyzing the ratio of cocaine to its metabolite — a chemical into which it degrades — that it came from people smoking crack cocaine or inhaling the powdered drug, and had been transported through the air via tiny particulate matter. European researchers earlier found cocaine in airborne particulates in urban environments.
Cocaine’s environmental effects are not well understood. It has been shown to accumulate in eels’ tissue and affect their endocrine systems at concentrations similar to those found in Minnesota lakes, and its breakdown product caused “notable adverse effects” in freshwater mussels at higher concentrations.
That concerned Malott of Clean Wisconsin, who noted that freshwater mussels are an important part of ecosystems.
“It makes you think about how do all these chemicals interact with each other, and how do they interact with other chemicals in the environment, like nutrients?” Malott said. “It’s pretty scary.”
This story is part of a project supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Fund for Environmental Journalism. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
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