Local utilities do not test water for drugs

Representatives from Southwest Florida utility companies said Tuesday their agencies do not test for pharmaceuticals in drinking water and are not required to by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The representatives reacted with interest to an Associated Press report released Monday that showed trace elements of pharmaceuticals were found in drinking water supplies around the United States, but had no concerns about the quality of drinking water in Southwest Florida.

No one knows what levels of pharmaceuticals are in the water.

Local DEP spokesman Eli Fleishauer, who read the AP report, said the DEP has no plans to require testing for the drugs and at the levels quoted in the story it would require drinking “many hundreds of gallons of water a day to get a single day’s dose” of the drugs.

Fleishauer added that similar quantities of lead would be allowed under current DEP drinking water regulations.

“In general, I think our water quality is good,” Fleishauer said.

The Associated Press report states that studies have yet to determine what effect elevated pharmaceutical levels in water supplies have on humans.

Decades before consumers even thought about the effect of excreted pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supply, Paul Mattausch questioned it: scientifically and as a consumer.

“I have a five-year-old grandson and I have no hesitation in having him drink straight from the tap,” said Mattausch, who is the director of Collier County’s water utility.

Mattausch, who has been in the water treatment business since 1968, said Collier’s water supply is well protected.

Though his department hasn’t specifically tested for drugs in the water supply, the county’s treatment plants are well-equipped to catch and filter any pharmaceuticals on the off chance that any slipped through.

All of the county’s water comes from wells deep in the ground that are not immediately impacted by surface water or discharge from wastewater plants, he said. Most of the county’s water has been in the ground for hundreds and thousands of years, but still goes through treatment to either soften or desalinize it. The process used would catch drug molecules which are “usually very, very large and very complex,” Mattausch said.

“Our water is very, very pure,” Mattausch said, noting that the county tests for contaminants deemed necessary by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and/or DEP. If either agency directed him to test for pharmaceuticals, he would do so, he said.

Patty DiPiero, a spokeswoman for Lee County Utilities, said the report’s findings are a result of technology. She said this type of in-depth testing, looking for pharmaceutical drugs in the water, doesn’t exist currently at the state and local level.

“We don’t have to test for these constituents,” DiPiero said.

She said the EPA has been investigating the issue for years but this is the beginning of these in-depth findings.

“It’s so new to everyone,” said DiPiero, who read the Associated Press investigation with great interest.

Last year, a study by Mote Marine Laboratory found traces of antidepressants in a group of juvenile bull sharks tagged in the Caloosahatchee River.

The study said nine of the 10 sharks tested positive for sertraline, the active component in Zoloft.

DiPiero said she was unaware of the research or the study.

Naples Utility Director Bob Middleton said he planned to begin researching the effects of prescription drugs in drinking water, after reading the Associated Press report.

This will be the first time the city looks into this issue, Middleton said, since the state DEP does not require testing for pharmaceuticals.

“We have never tested for things like antibiotics and Ibuprofen,” Middleton said. “It’s not in the drinking water standards. If they’re requiring to test for something, then we’re testing.”

Middleton said he anticipates Naples City Council will ask about the city’s testing policy during the next council meeting.

On Marco Island, City Public Works Director Rony Joel said the city does not test for pharmaceuticals in its drinking water, but is unconcerned about their effect.

“I would surmise the impact on our community is nil,” Joel said.

Marco’s water supply comes from surface water from Henderson Creek in East Naples. There is a “very remote concern” that leeching septic fields from development along the creek could allow trace levels of pharmaceuticals to enter the supply, Joel said. Regardless, he said, upgrades to the city’s water plant, which will increase its use of reverse osmosis technology — cited by the Associated Press report as effective in removing pharmaceuticals — will further minimize risk.

“If the DEP ever raises this to an issue of concern for our community, we will be well positioned to meet that challenge,” he said.

Fleishauer, the DEP spokesman, said studies on pharmaceuticals’ negative effects on fish are more definitive. He said the DEP and state legislature were looking into quality standards that would address that issue.


Staff Writers Jenna Buzzacco, Liam Dillon, Ilene Stackel and Tom Hanson contributed to this report.