updated 1/12/2010 9:09:56 PM ET 2010-01-13T02:09:56

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced a settlement Tuesday with five health care facilities that flushed pharmaceutical waste into the New York City watersheds.

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Cuomo reached agreements with the two hospitals and three nursing homes that disposed of painkillers, antibiotics, antidepressants, hormones and other pharmaceuticals through toilets and sinks and into the watersheds, his office said. The flushes potentially put about 9 million people's drinking water at risk, Cuomo said.

The three watersheds — the Croton, Catskill and Delaware — cover nearly 2000 square miles and drain into reservoirs and lakes providing drinking water to New York City's roughly 8 million residents and another 1 million in several northern counties — nearly half the state's 19.4 million residents.

The hospitals and nursing homes are located within the watershed in Putnam and Delaware counties north of New York City.

Although such facilities are allowed to flush many — but not all — drugs through toilets and sinks, the nursing homes and hospitals nonetheless agreed to stop disposing of all drugs in that manner to protect the watersheds, Cuomo said.

Instead, the facilities will give the drugs to waste management facilities, he said.

The attorney general's investigation of the facilities on the watersheds was prompted in part by a series of stories by The Associated Press in 2008 that revealed the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans contains minute concentrations of a multitude of drugs, said Katherine Kennedy, Cuomo's special deputy attorney general for environmental protection.

Water utilities, replying to an AP questionnaire, acknowledged the presence of dozens of drugs in their supplies. State tests of New York's watersheds in 2008 that also found trace amounts of drugs also led to Cuomo's investigation, Kennedy said.

Cuomo called the practice "an emerging threat" to New York's drinking water supply and said the federal Environmental Protection Agency has identified pharmaceuticals as "contaminants of emerging concern."

The attorney general said waste pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets or sinks end up at sewage treatment plants or septic systems that aren't designed to treat such wastes and don't remove some pharmaceuticals.

Also, Cuomo said, drinking water treatment plants, including those that chlorinate drinking water, don't consistently remove pharmaceuticals.

"The nine million people who get their water from the New York City watershed enjoy some of the cleanest, safest and best water in the world," said Cuomo. "We need to make sure it stays that way. These...settlements provide a new model to implement immediate and sensible precautions to keep waste drugs out of the drinking water supply."

Parties to the settlement were: Putnam Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Holmes in Putnam County; O'Connor Hospital and Countryside Care Center, both in Delhi in Delaware County; and Margaretville Memorial Hospital and Mountainside Residential Care Center in Margaretville, also in Delaware County.

Telephone messages seeking comment from the five facilities weren't immediately returned Tuesday.

Cuomo's investigation initially found a range of state and federal violations at the health care facilities, including failure to properly label, store, track and dispose of pharmaceuticals, Cuomo's office said.

Each facility was fined between $3,500 and $12,000 for various violations, including flushing drugs, said Richard Bamberger, a spokesman for Cuomo.

Cuomo's office also is investigating 10 other health care facilities on the watershed, officials said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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