Elizabeth Royte

Cows Dropping Dead, Farmers Getting Sick: How Fracking Is Threatening Our Food

The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

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Every Story About Chemicals in Drinking Water Is a Gift to the Bottled Water Industry

The New York Times ran a front page story yesterday on atrazine in drinking water (part of its series on worsening water pollution) and the state of federal tap-water regulation of this super-common weed killer (not good). The chemical is worrisome because of its ubiquity, its links with birth defects and low birth weights, and because it may have effects at levels lower than those previously suspected. (U.C. Berkeley's Dr. Tyrone Hayes, who correlated low-level atrazine exposure to deformities like extra legs in frogs, was absent from the Times story. You can read about his research in this article I did for Discover.)

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Disney Exhibit Gives Visitors a Warped Idea of Waste and Consumption

This piece orginially appeared in OnEarth Magazine.

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Is Drinking from the Toilet Bowl the Best Way to Deal with Water Shortages?

This piece originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

Before I left New York for California, where I planned to visit a water-recycling plant, I mopped my kitchen floor. Afterward, I emptied the bucket of dirty water into the toilet and watched as the foamy mess swirled away. This was one of life's more mundane moments, to be sure. But with water infrastructure on my mind, I took an extra moment to contemplate my water's journey through city pipes to the wastewater-treatment plant, which separates solids and dumps the disinfected liquids into the ocean.

A day after mopping, I gazed balefully at my hotel toilet in Santa Ana, Calif., and contemplated an entirely new cycle. When you flush in Santa Ana, the waste makes its way to the sewage-treatment plant nearby in Fountain Valley, then sluices not to the ocean but to a plant that superfilters the liquid until it is cleaner than rainwater. The "new" water is then pumped 13 miles north and discharged into a small lake, where it percolates into the earth. Local utilities pump water from this aquifer and deliver it to the sinks and showers of 2.3 million customers. It is now drinking water. If you like the idea, you call it indirect potable reuse. If the idea revolts you, you call it toilet to tap.

Opened in January, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System is the largest of its type in the world. It cost $480 million to build, will cost $29 million a year to run and took more than a decade to get off the ground. The stumbling block was psychological, not architectural. An aversion to feces is nearly universal, and as critics of the process are keen to point out, getting sewage out of drinking water was one of the most important public health advances of the last 150 years.

Still, Orange County forged ahead. It didn't appear to have a choice. Saltwater from the Pacific Ocean was entering the county's water supply, drawn in by overpumping from the groundwater basin, says Ron Wildermuth, who at the time we talked was the water district's spokesman. Moreover, population growth meant more wastewater, which meant building a second sewage pipe, five miles into the Pacific -- a $200 million proposition. Recycling the effluent solved the disposal problem and the saltwater problem in one fell swoop. A portion of the plant's filtered output is now injected into the ground near the coast, to act as a pressurized barrier against saltwater from the ocean.

Factor in Southern California's near chronic drought, the county's projected growth (another 300,000 to 500,000 thirsty people by 2020) and the rising cost of importing water from the Colorado River and from Northern California (the county pays $530 per acre-foot of imported water, versus $520 per acre-foot of reclaimed water), and rebranding sewage as a valuable resource became a no-brainer. With the demand for water growing, some aquifers dropping faster than they're replenished, snowpacks thinning and climate change predicted to make dry places even drier, water managers around the country, and the world, are contemplating similar schemes. Los Angeles and San Diego, which both rejected potable reuse, have raised the idea once again, as have, for the first time, DeKalb County, Ga., and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

While Orange County planned and secured permits, public-relations experts went into overdrive, distributing slick educational brochures and videos and giving pizza parties. "If there was a group, we talked to them," says Wildermuth, who recently left Orange County to help sell Los Angelenos on drinking purified waste. "Historical societies, chambers of commerce, flower committees."

The central message was health and safety, but the persuaders didn't skimp on buzz phrases like "local control" and "independence from imported water." Last winter, the valve between the sewage plant and the drinking-water plant whooshed open, and a new era in California's water history began.

When I visited the plant, a sprawl of modern buildings behind a concrete wall, in March, Wildermuth, in a blue sport coat and bright tie, acted as my guide. "Quick!" he shouted at one point, mounting a ledge and clinging to the rail over a microfiltration bay. "Over here!" I clambered up just as its contents finished draining from the scum-crusted tank. The sudsy water, direct from the sewage-treatment plant, was the color of Guinness. "This is the most exciting thing you'll see here, and I didn't want you to miss it," he said.

Wildermuth went on to explain what we were looking at: inside each of 16 concrete bays hangs a rack of vertical tubes stuffed with 15,000 polypropylene fibers the thickness of dental floss. The fibers are stippled with holes 1/300th the size of a human hair. Pumps pull water into the fibers, leaving behind anything larger than 0.2 microns, stuff like bacteria, protozoa and the dread "suspended solids."

The excitement and the bubbles were backwash: every 21 minutes, air is injected into the microfibers to blast them clean. The schmutz goes back to the sewage-treatment plant, and the cleaner water, now the color of chamomile tea, is pumped toward reverse-osmosis filters in another building. Before we saw that process, Wildermuth led me underground to inspect several enormous pumps and pipes large enough to crawl through.

I noted that everything was clearly labeled and scrupulously clean. Then it dawned on me: reassurance was the reason we'd taken the detour. We followed the pipes up to a sunlit, metal-clad building where the water, now dosed with an antiscalant and sulfuric acid to lower its pH, was forced at high pressure through hundreds of white tubes filled with tightly spiraled sheets of plastic membranes. Reverse osmosis, Wildermuth says, stops cold almost all nonwater molecules (things like salts, viruses and pharmaceuticals). The stuff that's removed is washed back to a pipe that discharges into the ocean. The filtered water, now known as permeate, moves one building over, where it's spiked with hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant, and then circulated past 144 lamps emitting ultraviolet light.

"Destruction of compounds through photolysis," Wildermuth said, nodding. Anything that's alive in this water can no longer reproduce. Strolling back through the campus, Wildermuth took me to a three-part demonstration sink with faucets streaming. The basin on the right contained reverse-osmosis backwash: it was molasses black, topped with a rainbow slick of oil. "Don't touch," Wildermuth warned as I leaned in for a better look at the ocean-bound rejectamenta.

The middle basin contained the chamomile water from microfiltration. And on the left was the stuff Orange County would eventually drink. It was clear and had no smell. But even this suctioned, sieved and irradiated water wasn't quite set for sipping; it still needed to be decarbonized and dosed with lime, to raise its pH.

Finally it would enter a massive purple pipe, which dives into the ground inside a nearby pump house and reappears 13 miles to the north, in Anaheim. There, the water would pour into Kraemer Basin, a man-made reservoir, where it would mix with the lake water and filter for six months through layers of sand and gravel hundreds of feet deep before utilities throughout the county pumped it into taps.

The reservoir is a prosaic ending for a substance that's been through the glitziest of technological wringers, transformed from sewage to drinking water only to be humbly redeposited into the earth. This final filtering step isn't necessary, strictly speaking, but our psyches seem to demand it.

To understand the basics of contemporary water infrastructure is to acknowledge that most American tap water has had some contact with treated sewage. Our wastewater-treatment plants discharge into streams that feed rivers from which other cities suck water for drinking. By the time New Orleans residents drink the Mississippi, the water has been in and out of more than a dozen cities; more than 200 communities, including Las Vegas, discharge treated wastewater into the Colorado River.

That's the good news. After heavy rains, many cities discharge untreated sewage directly into waterways -- more than 860 billion gallons of it a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

However -- and this is where we can take solace -- the sewage is massively diluted, time and sunlight help to break down its components and drinking-water plants filter and disinfect the water before it reaches our taps. The E.P.A. requires utilities to monitor pathogens, and there hasn't been a major waterborne-disease outbreak in this country since 1993. (Though there have been 85 smaller outbreaks between 2001 and 2006.)

So confident are engineers of so-called advanced treatment technologies that several communities have been discharging highly treated wastewater directly into reservoirs for years. Singapore mixes 1 percent treated wastewater with 99 percent fresh water in its reservoirs. (In Orange County, the final product will contain 17 percent recycled water.) Residents of Windhoek, Namibia, one of the driest places on earth, drink 100 percent treated wastewater. For 30 years, the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority, in Virginia, has been mixing recycled wastewater with fresh water in a reservoir and serving it to more than a million people. Still, no system produces as much recycled water as Orange County (currently 70 million gallons a day, going up to 85 million by 2011), and none inserts as many physical and chemical barriers between toilet and tap.

Environmentalists, river advocates and California surfers -- the sort of people who harbor few illusions about the purity of our rivers and oceans -- generally favor water recycling. It beats importing water on both economic and environmental grounds (about a fifth of California's energy is used to move water from north to south). "The days are over when we can consider wastewater a liability," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group in Oakland. "It's an asset. And that means figuring out how best to use it."

As we deplete the earth's nonrenewable resources, like oil and metals, the one-way trip from raw material to disposed and forgotten waste makes less and less sense. Already we recycle aluminum to avoid mining, compost organic material to avoid generating methane in landfills and turn plastic into lumber. As it becomes more valuable, water will be no different.

"We have to treat all waste as a resource," Conner Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, says. "Our water source, hundreds of miles away, is drying up. If the population is growing, what are our options?"

Water conservation could take us a long way, as would lower water subsidies for farmers. But sooner or later, stressed-out utility managers come back to the same idea: returning wastewater to the tap. The process isn't risk-free. Some scientists are concerned that dangerous compounds or undetectable viruses will escape the multiple physical and chemical filters at the plant. And others suggest that the potential for human error or mechanical failure -- clogged filters or torn membranes that let pathogens through, for example -- is too great to risk something as basic to public health as drinking water.

Recycled water should be used only as nondrinking water, says Philip Singer, the Daniel Okun Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina. "It may contain trace amounts of contaminants. Reverse osmosis and UV disinfection are very good, but there are still uncertainties."

And then there are those whose first, and final, reaction is "yuck."

"Why the hell do we have to drink our own sewage?" asks Muriel Watson, a retired schoolteacher who sat on a California water-reuse task force and founded the Revolting Grandmas to fight potable reuse. She toured the Orange County plant but came away unsatisfied. "It's not the sun and the sky and a roaring river crashing into rocks" -- nature's way of purifying water. "It's just equipment."

The Santa Ana River forms in the San Bernardino Mountains and flows southwest through Riverside and then Orange counties to the sea, the largest coastal stream in Southern California. But that's not saying much: in the summer, the Santa Ana's flow is nearly 100 percent wastewater. The river's base flow -- what enters the channel from runoff, rain and wastewater-treatment plants -- is increasing.

Not only is more effluent entering the river, a consequence of population growth, but as the county develops and paves more surfaces, rainwater runs off the earth faster, sluicing into the river channel before it can sink into the earth and replenish aquifers. To capture and clean that water, the Orange County Water District has gone into hyper-beaver mode on the river. Twenty miles upstream from Anaheim, the water district has created the Prado Wetlands. It's a lovely place, lush with willow and mule fat, busy with butterflies and, over the course of the year, 250 species of birds. Moving through a series of rectangular ponds, river water filters slowly through thickets of cattails and bulrushes meant to extract excess nitrate from upstream dairy farms and sewage-treatment plants.

Returned to the main channel, the water wends around T- and L-shaped berms that slow the water and maximize its contact with the river bottom. Gates and sluiceways then shunt the water into nine man-made ponds and pits. The goal is to get more water into the county's groundwater basin, a 350-square-mile, 1,500-foot-deep bathtub of sand and gravel layers, which act as natural scrubbers. The system upriver -- using gravity and gravel -- and the system in Fountain Valley -- in tanks and tubes -- both achieve the same goal. Sort of.

It's one of the many pardoxes of indirect potable reuse that the water leaving the plant in Fountain Valley is far cleaner than the water that it mingles with. Yes, the water entering the sewage-treatment plant in Fountain Valley is 100 percent wastewater and has a T.D.S. -- a measure of water purity, T.D.S. stands for total dissolved solids and refers to the amount of trace elements in the water -- of 1,000 parts per million. But after microfiltration and reverse osmosis, the T.D.S. is down to 30. (Poland Spring water has a T.D.S. of between 35 and 46.) By contrast, the "raw" water in the Anaheim basins has a T.D.S. of 600.

If everything in the Fountain Valley plant is in perfect working order, its finished water will contain no detectable levels of bacteria, pharmaceuticals or agricultural and industrial chemicals. The same can be said of very few water sources in this country.

But once the Fountain Valley water mingles with the county's other sources, its purity goes downhill. Filtering it through sand and gravel removes some contaminants, but it also adds bacteria (not necessarily harmful, and local utilities will eventually knock them out them with chlorine) and possibly pharmaceuticals.

In other words, nature messes up the expensively reclaimed water. So why stick it back into the ground?

"We do it for psychological reasons," says Adam Hutchinson, director of recharge operations for the water district. "In the future, people will laugh at us for putting it back in, instead of just drinking it."

Psychologists and marketers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a product, or a process, seem natural. Obviously, framing the issue properly is the key to acceptance. "If people connect the history of their water to contamination, you'll get a disgust response no matter how you treat that water in between," says Brent Haddad, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

"But if you enable people to frame out that history by telling them, for example, that 'the clean water has been separated from the polluted water,' they no longer make that connection." We abridge history all the time, Haddad adds. "Think of the restaurant fork that was in the mouth of someone with a contagious disease, the pillow that was underneath people doing private adult things in a hotel bedroom. If you think of it that way, the intermediate steps, like washing with hot water, don't matter."

All water on earth is recycled: the same drops that misted Devonian ferns and dripped from the fur of woolly mammoths are watering us today. From evaporation to condensation and precipitation, the cycle goes on and on. But in the planet's drier regions, where the population continues to rise, we can expect the time between use and reuse to grow ever shorter, with purification, pipes and pumps standing in for natural processes. Instead of sand and gravel filtering our drinking water, microfibers and membranes will do the job; instead of sunlight knocking out parasites, we'll plug in the UV lamps.

You could argue that in coming to terms with wastewater as a resource, we'll take better care of our water. At long last, the "everything is connected" message, the bedrock of the environmental movement, will hit home. In this view, once a community is forced to process and drink its toilet water, those who must drink it will rise up and change their ways.

Floor moppers will switch to biodegradable cleaning products. Industry will use nontoxic material. Factory farms will cut their use of antibiotics. Maybe we'll even stop building homes in the desert.

But these situations are not very likely. No one wants to think too hard about where our water comes from. It's more likely that the virtuosity of water technology will let polluters off the hook: why bother to reduce noxious discharges if the treatment plant can remove just about anything? The technology, far from making us aware of the consequences of our behavior, may give us license to continue doing what we've always done.

The recycled water coming out of the sink at the Fountain Valley plant looked good enough to drink. Wildermuth didn't press me to taste it, but I was eager for a sample -- to satisfy my curiosity, and to be polite. I filled a plastic cup and took a sip. The water tasted fine, if a little dry; I'm used to something with more minerals. It did cross my mind that any potential health issues from drinking so-far undetectable levels of contaminants would be cumulative and take decades to manifest.

Then I reminded myself: no naturally occurring water on earth is absolutely pure. And most everything that's in Orange County's reclaimed water is in most cities' drinking water anyway.

It was hot, my throat was parched, and I asked for a refill.

What If Your Tap Water Is Not Safe to Drink?

It's easy to be disdainful of bottled water if you've got no problem with tap. I live in a city with excellent municipal water. I've got lead-free pipes, a nice reusable bottle (which I almost always remember to bring with me), and I have no qualms about refilling it from public spigots or sinks. But not everyone is so lucky, and despite the airtight arguments against bottled water- it costs thousands of times more than tap, it often tastes no different, and it has a significant carbon footprint -- it isn't so easy for everyone to quit the habit.

And that's the dirty little secret behind the bottled-water wars. Not all tap water is perfect. It may meet all federal and state requirements but smell like rotten eggs or a swimming pool. The Environmental Protection Agency calls many taste and odor problems an "aesthetic," not health, issue, in which case a decent filter may solve the problem. But what if your water contains high levels of carcinogenic disinfection byproducts, which can result when organic matter mixes with chlorine? What if you live near an industrial plant or an army base that's contaminated your groundwater? It's happened around Binghamton, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and dozens of cities around the nation. A countertop filter isn't going to protect you from perchlorate, perfluorochemicals, or trichloroethene.

The fact is, 89.3 percent of the nation's community water systems met or exceeded federal standards in 2007 (down from 92 percent in 2006). It sounds good, but that still leaves more than 29 million people drinking water that missed the mark on either health or reporting standards. (Utilities that fail to report test results to the feds may be trying to hide something considered unhealthy.) Who are the unlucky millions? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they live in small communities that lack the funding to take good care of their water. Utility managers deal the hand they're dealt, in terms of source water, but the ones with more financial resources inevitably play a better hand.

For those with sub-par tap water, does a retreat to the bottle make sense? Hardly. First, bottled water isn't necessarily more healthful than tap. The Food and Drug Administration allows in bottled water basically the same levels of contaminants the EPA allows in tap water (no naturally occurring water is absolutely pure). Contaminants that go unregulated by the EPA -- such as perchlorate or MTBE, a gasoline additive - also go unregulated by the FDA. While utility customers can learn the results of testing from annual reports, bottlers aren't required to reveal the results of either their self-testing or their far less frequent independent inspections. As an EPA employee told me, with bottled water "it's a crapshoot what you're getting." Another difference: bottled water is tested at the plant, not after it's been sitting in plastic for up to two years. Chemicals from bottles have been shown to leach into water over time.

Second, many people can't afford bottled water, especially with oil so precious. Third, and perhaps most importantly, abandoning tap water en masse will only make it worse for its remaining consumers. Good water doesn't just happen: it takes political will to allocate and spend money to protect watersheds, wrangle with polluters, and replace old pipes. Distanced from public systems, committed bottled water drinkers have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods - including rate increases - of upgrading municipal water treatment.

And that's the conundrum: environmental groups readily point out our water systems' failures (the dozens of unregulated contaminants, the discharge of 850 billion gallons of raw sewage into the nation's waterways each year, the $22-billion-a-year funding shortfall to fix distribution pipes and treatment plants). But those same groups are uncomfortable steering us toward an apparent solution: water that's been ultra-filtered by private companies, or water sourced from supposedly pristine springs. Instead, advocacy groups say, protect yourself with an on-tap or under-the-sink filter, which remove far more contaminants than countertop models.

Of course, filters have their own environmental and economic costs. So what's a better solution? Ultimately, we must fix and improve the systems we've got. Clean drinking water is an index of a functioning society: more than a billion people worldwide lack sufficient access to clean water, and more than 5 million a year die from waterborne diseases. The United States still has one of the best water systems in the developed world: it would be criminal to run it into the ground. Our water will either continue to degrade -as development, agriculture, and industry pollute our water -- or we'll forge ahead with strengthened treatment standards and watershed protection and serious investment in water and distribution infrastructure (funded by more realistic water rates, and by large-scale water users and polluters).

Bottled water isn't, in the larger scheme, the worst thing in the world. (If you absolutely must buy a containerized beverage, it beats soda or other high-calorie drinks.) But if our leaders continue to under-fund and ignore the nation's water systems, and the public flees municipal supplies for private, these systems will degrade to the point where only those who can afford to buy good water, from protected sources, will have it. And that would be a tragedy.

How Prescription Drugs Are Poisoning Our Waters

Norman Leonard moved to Heritage Village, a sprawling retirement community in western Connecticut, 11 years ago. Its green-gabled condominiums and Capes were well maintained, and the landscapers hadn't skimped on the rhododendrons. A retired CPA, Leonard considers himself, at age 80, to be in pretty decent shape: He plays platform tennis on the grounds and hikes often in nearby forests and reserves. But still, he takes five different drugs a day to manage his blood pressure, acid reflux, and high cholesterol. Heritage Village is home to about 4,000 residents with similar medical profiles, who take an average of six drugs a day.

And that's a healthy population. In a convalescent home a few miles away, Patricia Reilly, age 88, wheels herself each morning toward a low shelf. With a glass of water and small cups of applesauce at the ready, she prepares to take her morning medicines: nine different types that treat heart disease, acid reflux, renal stones, a chronic urinary-tract infection, chronic constipation, migraine headaches, depression, allergic rhinitis, degenerative arthritis, and intermittent vertigo. The 120 residents of River Glen Health Care Center, where the average age is 90, take an average of eight drugs a day; the most common among them target high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes. Once swallowed, Reilly's medications will bring her some relief, but their biological activity won't stop once they leave her body.

When residents of Heritage Village and two other nearby retirement communities flush their toilets, wastewater laced with traces of prescription drugs rushes through a series of pipes into the Heritage Village treatment plant. This flushing is the main pathway by which pharmaceuticals enter the environment. Hospitals and nursing homes routinely dump unused or expired pills down the toilet, and consumers have been advised to do the same; effluent from pharmaceutical manufacturers also ends up at municipal wastewater treatment plants. Through a process of settling and aeration, the Heritage Village plant separates liquids from solids, treats the liquid portion with disinfectant, and then discharges this effluent into a mini-creek that meanders between the third green and the seventh tee of the Heritage Village golf course. Making its way through a riparian band of oaks and maples, the creek fans out into the Pomperaug River, which loops without further interruption through the town of Southbury.

The Pomperaug looks no different upstream or down, but studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on other rivers suggest that the Pomperaug below the effluent creek carries the signatures of drugs consumed by anyone plumbed into the Heritage Village system. The effect of those drugs on the environment, and possibly on those who drink water pumped from those streams, is only beginning to be understood.

We are a nation obsessed with pharmaceuticals. We spend vast sums to manage our health, and we pop pills to address every conceivable symptom. Some elderly Americans take as many as 30 drugs a day, some of them merely to counteract the effects of others. Prescription drug sales rose by an annual average of 11 percent between 2000 and 2005. Americans now fill more than three billion prescriptions a year; nationwide, more than 10 million women take birth-control pills, and about the same number are on hormone-replacement therapy.

The rate at which prescriptions are dispensed is only going up as the population ages. Already, those over 65 fill twice as many prescriptions per year as do younger Americans. Inevitably, more drugs will be headed into waterways like the Pomperaug. Our rivers -- already stressed by pollutants, groundwater pumping, reduced flows, and overburdened wastewater treatment plants that dump raw sewage -- will be ever less able to cope.

Alarmed by data that showed trace levels of pharmaceuticals in European streams, researchers in the United States have begun to survey our nation's waterways. In 2002, the USGS published the results of its first-ever reconnaissance of man-made contaminants. Using highly sensitive assays, the agency found traces of 82 different organic contaminants -- fertilizers and flame retardants as well as pharmaceuticals -- in surface waters across the nation. These drugs included natural and synthetic hormones, antibiotics, antihypertensives, painkillers, and antidepressants.

Now that science has documented the presence of free-flowing pharmaceuticals, researchers are faced with another, far more difficult, pair of questions: What does this mean for the environment, and what does it mean for us? Early evidence of harm to aquatic organisms is giving researchers grounds for real concern.

On a dull November morning, two graduate students from the University of Connecticut shiver on the steep banks of the Pomperaug. Monotonously, repetitively, they plunge plastic jars two feet down into the beer-colored water. Five-minute intervals tick away on a stopwatch. "Is it here yet?" asks Dan Seremet. He's now midstream, his fleece cuffs dripping onto his chest waders. Raquel Figueroa, squatting in a drift of crisp oak leaves, slips a vial of water into a portable fluorometer, closes the gizmo's cover, taps a button, and answers, "Point one nine."

So, no. It isn't here yet.

Five minutes pass, Raquel shouts in her tiny voice, "Go!" and Dan, maneuvering over slippery rocks, dips his jar again. Two hours pass, in five-minute chunks, and the fluorometer, which detects and measures specific particles in the water, rises only to 0.65 parts per billion (ppb).

"Maybe we're in the wrong river," Dan sighs. Raquel doesn't bother to answer. She logs the time and the concentrations. She dumps out samples. She painstakingly removes a bittersweet vine holding her leg prisoner. "Next time we should bring pruners," she says to no one in particular. Then, "Go!" Dan dips.

In 30 minutes, the fluorometer rises to 2.45. Nothing to get excited about: When the half cup of fluorescent magenta dye -- poured into the Pomperaug two miles upstream and two hours earlier -- flowed past the previous monitoring station, the reading peaked at just over 4 ppb. "Uh-oh," says Raquel when she takes the next reading. "We're down to 2.301." In another five minutes it is 2.25.

"I guess that was the peak," says Dan, his voice the opposite of a peak, as he clambers out of the streambed. He and Raquel pack up their bottles and log books, the fluorometer, a tape measure, and a flow meter (basically a pair of spinning blades on a stick, used to measure the water's velocity), then drive downstream to do it all again with the boss, at the last of four monitoring stations.

The boss is Allison MacKay, an environmental engineer who specializes in aquatic chemistry at the University of Connecticut. MacKay had risen at four o'clock in the morning and loaded her car with gear, plus the sleepy Dan and Raquel, then drove west to Southbury. By eight, she had poured her dye into the Pomperaug at the point where it receives the Heritage Village effluent. (Invisible to the naked eye, the dye is nontoxic and will degrade in sunlight over three days.) With her grad students MacKay is tracking the dye's progress down a six-mile stretch. The concentration of the dye, read by the fluorometer, will tell her both the rate at which the Pomperaug flows and the rate at which a particular contaminant is diluted as it flows downstream -- two useful bits of information when you're studying the movement of contaminants from a single source. MacKay and her helpers are also taking water samples that will later be analyzed for the presence of the same 82 organic contaminants originally assayed by the USGS.

In a turquoise parka and insulated pants, MacKay kneels on the sandy bank. Her cheeks are pink in the cold air. If there is any fun to be had along a New England river in November, this crew refuses to acknowledge it. There are no observations on flora or fauna, no chitchat, no stone skipping or stick building. MacKay is all business, and her students follow her lead. For eight hours (no lunch break) they collect water and measure the river's depth, width, and velocity.

"The USGS does grab samples," says MacKay, rapidly punching a series of numbers into her calculator and plotting points on a hand-drawn graph. Grab samples are like snapshots, a single moment in a single place in a stream. "Their studies established the presence of drugs in our waterways, but no one in this country has looked at the temporal and spatial distribution or the environmental degradation rates of pharmaceuticals in surface water. That's what I'm doing." Among the factors that influence the compounds' fate are sunlight, temperature, flow rate, microorganisms in the sediment, minerals, and other chemicals in the water. If concentrations of any particular contaminant decrease, MacKay explains, she'll set up controlled lab experiments to see where, when, and how it happened: Was it the sun degrading the compound, a change in temperature, or an organism that might have consumed it? If aquatic life is suffering, she continues, researchers will need to know what concentrations they're being exposed to at different points in the stream.

This stretch of the Pomperaug makes an ideal laboratory for MacKay's study: It is wadeable, and it has only one significant input of both water and prescription compounds -- the Heritage Village treatment plant. The river is also a paradigm of the nation's threatened waterways, of the large- and small-scale changes that our growing population has wrought. Still, to drive the country roads of Southbury and its neighboring villages is to marvel at what hasn't changed in the past 200 years. Well-kept colonial houses still flank water mills; nineteenth-century farm fences decorously sag. The stream banks are, for the most part, intact. Trout congregate in deep pools. Though some of its meanders and oxbows were mechanically straightened more than half a century ago, the river still flows past horse farms and hemlock glades and rolling hills.

One can't help thinking the Pomperaug is privileged to run through a stronghold of the well-to-do. All American rivers are, at some level, endangered, but this one's remaining virtues are particularly obvious. Not only is there plenty worth saving here, there are also plenty of stakeholders eager to do the saving, among them a mild-mannered, semiretired internist named Marc Taylor, who happens to live just a few miles downstream from MacKay's sampling sites.

Taylor is the medical director of the River Glen Health Care Center, where Patricia Reilly lives, but he spends an inordinate amount of time fretting -- in public meetings and in private telephone calls with scientists, politicians, city planners, and conservation groups -- about the health of his river. "I'm concerned about pharmaceuticals in the river because I am a doctor," says Taylor, who speaks in precisely measured sentences, "and because I know these drugs are bioactive." That is, they can enter the bioprocesses of aquatic organisms.

As chairman of the Pomperaug River Watershed Coalition, Taylor has watched with increasing concern as developers cut streets into nearby hillsides, shopping centers supplant farms and orchards, and waves of the elderly flock to four planned communities within the town limits. "As the population of the watershed goes up," says Taylor, sitting in his basement office surrounded by maps of the region, "more groundwater is being pumped. We've got three public water companies drawing water from wells sunk near the Pomperaug." With a few computer keystrokes, Taylor pulls up real-time data from a gauging station on the river. This afternoon's flow is 250 cubic feet per second. Last summer it dropped to 8 cubic feet per second -- one of the lowest flow rates in the river's recorded history. Some small streams in the Pomperaug watershed now completely disappear in the summer.

The Pomperaug's peril is not unique. "Across the nation rivers are stressed," says Katherine Baer, advocacy director for American Rivers, which is based in Washington, D.C. "As drought becomes more common, there is less water in streams for aquatic life. Everywhere we see more development, sprawl, and increased population. So we get higher pollution loads. Pharmaceuticals, which become more concentrated with low water, are only increasing the burden."

At the present time, in a project unrelated to its study of contaminants, the USGS is making hydrologic models of how water enters, moves through, and leaves the Pomperaug watershed. The Pomperaug River Watershed Coalition is studying water quality, the dilution of treated wastewater, and, with the help of Allison MacKay, the environmental fate of compounds left behind after drugs have been metabolized by our bodies, as well as that portion of the drugs that passes through us without being absorbed.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is putting together a database of literature on so-called emerging contaminants, those metabolites are virtually everywhere, from the iconically dirty Chicago River to the iconically pristine headwaters of Boulder Creek in Colorado. They're in the intakes and outflows of water facilities in both urban and rural areas, in groundwater, mountain streams, surface water, and domestic wells. And while levels of pharmaceuticals are sometimes infinitesimally low, their supplies are continually replenished. As a result, organisms that constantly bathe in a chemical broth are beginning to reveal some alarming abnormalities.

In Boulder Creek, David Norris, an environmental endocrinologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that female white suckers, bottom-feeding fish that grow up to a foot long, outnumber males by more than five to one, and that 50 percent of males have female sex tissue. Similar intersex changes have been found in flat-head chubs and smallmouth bass. The cause, Norris suspects, is exposure to estrogen. Like most pharmaceuticals, hormones aren't designed to break down easily. They're supposed to have an effect at low dosages with chronic use, and they only partly dissolve in water.

"I'm worried for fish populations, and I'm worried for human populations," says Norris. "The levels found in Boulder Creek are low in absolute terms, but they aren't low on the biological level. You could have six chemicals below the no-effect level, but all together they are above the no-effect level." In lab tests, frogs and rats have developed infections and deformities after being exposed to multiple pollutants at extremely low levels. Since exposure to only one compound is rare in the modern world, sorting out "mixture effects" is a daunting but critical research area. The estrogenic compounds in drinking water, Norris says, are "adding to the general exposure of the human population to environmental estrogens in our foods, and in containers that hold our foods. They all work through the same mechanisms." In the United Kingdom, hormones in the environment have been linked with lowered sperm counts and gynecomastia -- the development of breasts in men.

A Baylor University researcher found tiny amounts of Prozac in liver and brain tissue of channel catfish and black crappie captured in a creek near Dallas that receives almost all of its flow from a wastewater treatment plant. The creek also connects to a drinking water supply. A University of Georgia scientist found that tadpoles exposed to Prozac morphed into undersize frogs, which are vulnerable to predation and environmental stress. The EPA reports that antidepressants can have a profound effect on spawning and other behaviors in shellfish and that calcium-channel blockers (used to relieve chest pain and hypertension) can dramatically inhibit sperm activity in some aquatic organisms. Even at extremely low levels, ibuprofen, steroids, and antifibrotics -- a class of drugs that helps reduce the development of scar tissue -- block fin regeneration in fish. According to a report by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, a worldwide network of scientists and scientific institutions, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, more than 200 species -- aquatic and terrestrial -- are known or suspected to have experienced adverse reactions to such endocrine disruptors as estrogen and its synthetic mimics. (See "Hundreds of Man-Made Chemicals Are Interfering With Our Hormones and Threatening Our Children's Future" by Gay Daly, OnEarth, Winter 2006.)

Experts say pharmaceuticals have probably been in the environment for as long as we've been using them. We're discovering them now because analytical methods sensitive at the parts-per-trillion level and lower were only recently developed. Surely the technology is a boon to society, but it opens a Pandora's box of questions. We know that low concentrations of some pharmaceuticals are affecting aquatic organisms, but what are they doing to humans? What happens when organisms are exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time? What happens when they bioconcentrate in living creatures or accumulate in sediment?

Traditionally, toxicologists have assessed environmental and health risks one chemical at a time, focusing on such end points as birth defects or cancer. More recently, scientists have begun to examine effects from combinations of chemicals, an approach that more closely mimics the way organisms are exposed to chemicals in the environment. Looking at end points that include immune and reproductive system dysfunctions and neurological, cognitive, and behavioral effects, researchers are finding that mixtures of chemicals can lead to effects at much lower levels than do single chemicals, and that low-level exposure can often induce results not seen at higher levels. Nearly every week, results of new studies on emerging contaminants appear in toxicology and environmental health journals.

"It may seem impossible to figure out what's happening," says Christian Daughton, chief of the environmental chemistry branch of the EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas, "but technology has a way of leapfrogging. Less than a decade ago no one thought you could map the human genome. Analytical chemistry progresses at a fast rate. Remember, we're only talking about this now because we developed the technology to find these compounds."

Parsing the downstream effects of pharmaceutical compounds is an exceedingly complicated task. For one thing, more than 100 new drugs -- both prescription and over-the-counter -- are introduced each year. Researchers are confronted with long latency periods for some human diseases, making it difficult to connect an illness or disorder with long-ago exposures. Some of the drugs in our waterways act upon more than one hormonal pathway; some may end up in humans through multiple exposures (for example, antibiotics from both food and water); and exposure to mixtures of contaminants may lead to an adverse effect using one particular recipe, but produce a dif-ferent effect when the ratio of those same ingredients is changed. "For many of these drugs, the mechanism of action for humans is unknown," says Daughton. "So it's difficult to anticipate what's going to happen to them after they've entered the environment. There isn't even a database for all published work to show their presence, their location, and their concentration."

This fall, when water flows are at their lowest, Allison MacKay, accompanied by Raquel and another grad student, hopes to inch down the riverbanks once again to capture small pieces of the Pomperaug. MacKay knows her study is just the beginning of a very long process, but it is fundamental to an understanding of drugs in our waterways. "The power of knowing about the fate of these compounds is to use it in a predictive way," MacKay says. "Once we know what's happening, we can say, 'I'm going to release this, and this is when it will degrade.' I don't know about drugs, but pesticides have been reformulated to degrade faster and be less bioaccumulative in water-ways."

Could manufacturers reformulate pharmaceuticals in a similar way? "There's a trade-off in terms of having molecules break down readily versus having a stable molecule that does its work as a medicine and has a reasonable shelf life," says Thomas White, a technical consultant to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents brand-name drug manufacturers and accounts for 80 percent of all drug sales in the United States. "We've looked at studies of 26 compounds and there doesn't appear to be any human health risk." Because there is no accepted methodology for evaluating interactions among active pharmaceutical ingredients, the studies that PhRMA reviewed, which came from a variety of sources, considered drugs singly, not in combination. The PhRMA review included antibiotics, cardiovascular drugs, and antidepressants, but not estrogen or steroids. "Hormones," White concedes, "are a class of drug that would be a problem: They're designed to affect the human endocrine system. Their fate effects are under study now."

Marc Taylor, like many health-care professionals, thinks a good first step for getting drugs out of waterways is to persuade hospitals and nursing homes to abandon their policy of flushing unused drugs down the toilet. A handful of states and municipalities have launched pharmaceutical take-back programs, in which consumers bring unwanted or expired medications to an official collection site. Drugs are then either returned to manufacturers or disposed of by incineration. But creating a national return policy is more complex than it sounds. "You've got federal and state regulations, the governing boards of pharmacies, and the Drug Enforcement Agency," says Daughton. "Everyone has to get together."

Even if the federal government did devise such a policy, it would deal only with unused drugs, not with those actually swallowed and then flushed, which is the primary pathway to the environment. If redesigning drugs to break down sooner in the environment is a non-starter, then what about improving wastewater treatment? "We already have the tools and technology to take out everything," says Lynn Orphan, former president of the Water Environment Federation, which represents operators of municipal wastewater treatment plants. "We can use activated carbon or membrane filters, which have tiny pores. There's reverse-osmosis filtration [which removes organic contaminants] and exposure to ozone or to ultraviolet light. Sometimes it's just a matter of extra retention time in holding tanks."

But Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst on waste issues at the EPA, says, "Some of those technologies have been demonstrated to work in a laboratory, but they haven't been scaled up for day-to-day use. The cost of putting them in place, plus their operation, is astronomical -- hundreds of millions over the lifetime of a plant."

Standing in his backyard, Marc Taylor can, with little effort, toss a stone into the riffles of the Pomperaug. The water is so clear that he could, if he wanted, easily retrieve it. He continues to swim in the river and to drink from it -- his well water comes from the Pomperaug aquifer.

As he awaits the results of MacKay's study, Taylor says, "I'll keep prescribing the medications that Patricia Reilly and my other patients need." In a philosophical mode, he continues, "The public will have to get used to the reality that the drugs and chemicals we use all go somewhere and have potential effects. The environmental fate of all consequential drugs and chemicals should be known. It's worth studying because this problem is only going to get worse as the population ages." For now, he says, "we'll have to rely on the health of the fauna in our rivers to get hints about the consequences to people. The fish and the amphibians are our canaries."

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