updated 3/12/2008 6:52:54 PM ET 2008-03-12T22:52:54

The governor of Illinois ordered screening of the state’s waterways for pharmaceuticals Wednesday in reaction to an Associated Press investigation into the presence of trace amounts of medicines in U.S. drinking water.

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The announcement by Gov. Rod Blagojevich came as the New York City Council scheduled an emergency committee hearing and as water providers across the nation assured residents that their water is safe to drink — even if it hasn’t been tested.

Blagojevich said he had ordered the state’s environmental agency to begin screening waterways for pharmaceuticals and to promote safer disposal of medicines. The governor also announced that the state will partner with Chicago officials to test that city’s drinking water.

The AP series reported that Chicago was one of the largest U.S. cities that does not test its drinking water.

Blagojevich also directed state health officials to further assess the effects of any pharmaceutical contamination on human health.

In New York City, where the AP reported that trace concentrations of heart medicine, infection fighters, estrogen, anti-convulsants, a mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer have been detected in the upstate source of the city’s water, the City Council has scheduled an emergency public hearing for April 3. The AP reported that despite the test results in the watershed, the city does not test its downstate drinking water.

“I’m very concerned about the possible effects of even traces of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water,” said Councilman James G. Gennaro, a Democrat from Queens who heads the council’s environmental protection committee.

Senate hearings have been scheduled by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and other members of Congress have called for the appointment of a task force and additional research.

“The Associated Press investigation was illuminating and a great service, but it was not an official governmental study, and I doubt your agency will act on an outside group’s findings,” wrote Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., in a letter sent Wednesday to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. “If there are pharmaceuticals in our water, our government should be fully aware of the problem and working to correct it.”

The EPA released a statement in response to the AP series. “EPA appreciates any opportunity to raise the public’s awareness about the safe disposal of prescription drugs and environmental responsibility,” said spokesman Timothy Lyons. “The agency’s work to protect the nation’s water supply and enhance human health is ongoing, and we are pleased to see the interest Americans have taken in this effort.”

The five-month-long project by the AP National Investigative Team, published this week, found that drugs — mostly the residue of medications taken by people, excreted and flushed down the toilet — have gotten into the drinking water supplies of at least 24 major metropolitan areas, from Southern California to northern New Jersey.

The risks from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals are unknown. While no proof has been found of human health effects, recent studies have detected alarming adverse effects on human cells and wildlife.

Officials in other cities and water agencies also pressed for testing — and others demanded that any test results be disclosed.

The most pervasive response, repeated by officials in communities around the country, was that although their water hasn’t been tested for pharmaceuticals, there is no reason to be concerned.

From Cheyenne, Wyo., to Jacksonville, Fla., and in dozens of communities elsewhere, water department officials reminded consumers that the traces of pharmaceuticals being found nationwide are minute and that the quality of their water exceeds all EPA water standards. However, the EPA does not have any standards for pharmaceuticals in water.

Calls for action appeared on newspaper editorial pages.

“Why isn’t there a national standard that would ensure more rigorous testing? The Environmental Protection Agency should be taking leadership on this,” said a Philadelphia Daily News editorial.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer said that water studies are underway in its region, but that “more can and must be done, from widespread sampling of area waters and federal standards for pharmaceutical sampling to far more intensive research on ways to remove such residues from drinking water. The public’s health demands nothing less.”

In some cases, providers who had not disclosed to the AP what they found in their water opted to tell their local news media after the investigative story came out.

For example, the Santa Clara Valley Water Agency — which previously would not specify which pharmaceuticals were detected in its watershed — has since told local reporters those compounds included ibuprofen, anti-convulsants and anti-inflammatories.

Water officials in Des Moines, Iowa, Cape Cod in Massachusetts and in Southern California’s Inland Empire region, not part of the AP survey, told reporters about pharmaceuticals that had been detected in their water supplies, as well.

“Just as water utilities need data to make informed decisions, we believe that consumers should have the information they need to make personal health decisions,” said Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, a group representing the largest publicly owned drinking water suppliers in the United States.

In some locales, officials said they were already gathering data or would like information to be compiled.

“It will equip us with the scientifically sound information that is necessary to shape future courses of action to ensure public health and protect the environment,” said Kathleen McGinty, the state environmental secretary for Pennsylvania, where 56 different pharmaceuticals or byproducts were detected in Philadelphia’s drinking water.

Water managers in Fresno, Calif., held a meeting this week to allay public concerns about the area’s drinking water but said the city doesn’t plan to change its water treatment process in the wake of the AP investigation.

The city has not tested for pharmaceuticals in and around its wastewater treatment plant because it doesn’t have the appropriate testing technology, said city spokeswoman Rhonda Jorn.

“We are very confident that we do have safe drinking water,” Jorn said. “Of course, we’d be more than happy to test for pharmaceuticals in the water should the EPA make that technology available to us.”

The AP’s findings also have made their way to the late-night TV talk show circuit.

“Right here in Los Angeles they found high levels of anti-anxiety medication in the water, but health officials say, ’Oh, don’t worry about it,’ “ said Jay Leno during a monologue Monday night on his NBC-TV program. “Well, we can’t worry about it. It’s in the water!”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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