OLYMPIA - LOTT Alliance wastewater treatment plants in Olympia and Lacey do a better job than most in the Puget Sound region of keeping chemicals found in pharmaceuticals and personal care products, or PPCPs, out of the environment, according to a new study.
The research by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology confirmed that plants such as LOTT’s, which take extra steps to remove nutrients from the effluent, also capture and treat more of the everyday chemicals found in prescription drugs, shampoos, deodorants and other products excreted or washed down the drain.
None of the five plants studied was effective in keeping all the dozens of drugs and chemicals out of the environment, but that comes as no surprise.
More than 170 chemicals were analyzed in the wastewater that entered the plants, leaving as treated effluent or biosolids.
Ecology engineer Brandi Lubliner cautioned that the study looked at only one day of operations at the plants, which also included the Chambers Creek and Puyallup plants in Pierce County and another in Hayden Lake, Idaho.
In 80 percent or more of the cases, LOTT’s two reclaimed-water plants reduced levels of PPCPs by at least 90 percent.
“The plants weren’t designed to manage PPCPs,” LOTT administrator Mike Strub said. “But it is good news to learn that LOTT already has some treatment systems in place.”
Less than 60 percent of the PPCPs in the effluent at the Pierce County plants had concentrations reduced at least 80 percent, according to the study. The same held true for LOTT’s Budd Inlet treatment plant designed to remove nitrogen but not meet reclaimed-water standards.
PPCPs in wastewater are not regulated by the federal or state government, and research into their environmental and health effects is in its early stages.
“There’s more we don’t know than we do know,” Strub said. “We don’t even know where to attack the problem.”
Studies in other regions of the country and Europe have shown that endocrine-disrupting compounds used in some PPCPs may be responsible for effects on wildlife, altering their reproductive systems, according to an Ecology fact sheet on the subject.
In addition, about one-third of the personal-care products on the market contain at least one known cancer-causing agent, according to an Ecology review of studies on the subject.
LOTT officials are sensitive to public concerns that medicines and other chemicals could be in water that is sent to their recharge basins and infiltrated back into the groundwater and, eventually, into drinking water supplies serving South Sound.
Some of that public concern was fueled by a 2008 Associated Press report stating that drinking water supplied to 51 million Americans contains minute amounts of a number of PPCPs, including antibiotics, sedatives and sex hormones.
However, Strub said, most of those water supplies were in parts of the country that rely on rivers and other surface water for drinking supplies, which are more vulnerable to wastewater effluent and stormwater runoff.
He said LOTT’s reclaimed wastewater continues to receive treatment as it moves through the soil, and it isn’t allowed to come into contact with public water supplies for one year.
“It’s a concern to the public; we know that,” said Karla Fowler, LOTT’s director of community relations and environmental policy. “But let’s put it in perspective – we load our medicine cabinets up with this stuff, and then we worry about parts per trillion of it at the other end.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444