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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Memorandum of Understanding on Sustainability of Federal Collaboration on Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

Location: Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Project Number: 0202-11000-001-52-M
Project Type: Memorandum of Understanding

Start Date: Dec 17, 2012
End Date: Dec 16, 2017

Improve and sustain federal coordination and collaboration on issues related to pharmaceuticals in drinking water. Research has detected pharmaceuticals in the nation’s drinking water. National and regional studies by the USGS, EPA, and others have detected pharmaceuticals in source water, treated drinking water, and treated wastewater; but the full extent of occurrence is unknown. The concentrations detected for any one pharmaceutical were measured most frequently in parts per trillion. Research has not determined the human health effects of exposure to these concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water but the potential effects of some compounds (e.g., antibiotics and those that interfere with the functioning and development of hormones in humans) have raised concerns among some scientists, the public and policy makers. Additional research is needed that this MOU could help identify and facilitate. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) authorizes the EPA to regulate contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, in public drinking water systems if such contaminants may adversely affect human health, among other criteria. Pharmaceuticals may enter drinking water supplies from several pathways, including discharges from wastewater facilities. Another source of pharmaceuticals is agricultural animal production facilities where large numbers of food-producing animals (such as chickens, cattle, and swine) are treated with pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals enter the environment, including sources of drinking water, either directly from waste storage structures as a result of accidents or weather conditions, or through the application of manure and liquid wastes to croplands. A potential pathway is from improper disposal of pharmaceuticals down the drain or toilet and through natural elimination. Some states and local governments as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration have taken actions that could reduce the extent to which pharmaceuticals occur in drinking water. These efforts have primarily been through the implementation of drug take-back programs to encourage proper control and disposal of pharmaceuticals. EPA faces challenges in obtaining sufficient occurrence and health effects data on pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in drinking water to help support analyses and decisions to identify which, if any, pharmaceuticals should be regulated under SDWA. EPA is collaborating with the FDA, USGS and USDA on research to help obtain such data. To date these efforts have been largely informal. Currently, there is no overall federal interagency plan for research on the effects of pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

Collaborative efforts of the Parties will be coordinated by a Steering Committee, consisting of one or two representatives from each Party. The Steering Committee will be jointly responsible for the establishment of an interagency workgroup and for activities such as scheduling and organizing workgroup meetings and/or other events, responding to GAO, and coordinating efforts designed to ensure that the mission of this agreement is advanced. The workgroup will consist of representatives from the Parties and other federal agencies with responsibilities to address issues related to the occurrence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water and sources of drinking water. The scope of workgroup activities will encompass a broad range of topics related to pharmaceuticals in water that may be of interest to any subset of agencies on the workgroup. These activities will include, but are not limited to, sharing information on health effects (such as pharmaceutical biological activity and toxicology) and occurrence (sources, fate and transport) that could support scientific analyses and assist in informing policy decisions, interagency planning meetings and public scientific conferences, as well as coordination of joint studies to investigate pharmaceuticals and other related contaminants in the environment and biological outcomes related to exposure. This workgroup may also provide a means to facilitate interagency consultation on implications of research and analyses derived from shared information.

Last Modified: 10/20/2017
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