Yisu Zheng / Sun Staff Photographer

Cayuga Lake in 2018.

July 19, 2019

Contaminants Found in Ithaca Drinking Water Point to Larger Environmental Problem

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Diabetes medication, painkillers and herbicides – all have infiltrated Cayuga Lake and the Ithaca area’s drinking water, researchers say.

While this is not an immediate health concern, contamination does point to a larger issue regarding how waste disposal impacts the environment, according to researchers Dr. Jose Lozano M.S.’88 Ph.D. ’91 and Prof. Susan Allen-Gil of Ithaca College.

Lozano and Allen-Gil, who works in the department of environmental studies and sciences, spearheaded a seven-year research project to investigate the presence of contaminants in Ithaca’s surrounding waters.

The project initially focused on whether the large college student presence in the area made a difference in the water’s trace levels of pharmaceutical substances like birth control and stimulants like caffeine.

Prof. Jose Lozano

Prof. Jose Lozano

No correlation was found, but the team reported finding foreign substances similar to those found in water quality tests across the country.

In addition to the pharmaceutical traces, there were also microplastics present, according to Lozano and Allen-Gil’s research.

Prof. Susan Allen-Gil

Prof. Susan Allen-Gil

The National Ocean Service defines microplastics as any plastic smaller than five millimeters in diameter, usually a byproduct of single use plastics – like water bottles, straws or grocery bags – and microbeads in beauty products like face wash or toothpaste.

Countries like Switzerland have incorporated filters specifically for contaminants like the ones found in Cayuga Lake, but such filters are expensive, according to Allen-Gil.

Allen-Gil said that the levels detected were still very small, being in the parts per billion.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth spending a whole lot of money to address it without some evidence that [the pharmaceuticals] are affecting the water quality,” Allen-Gil told The Sun.

On the other hand, Lozano pointed out that some of those same trace amounts were similar to the trace amounts of hormones present in the human body.

Since hormones are effective at very small levels in the body, the pharmaceuticals in the water could potentially affect those drinking it — but more research is required to truly understand its impact, said Allen-Gil.

Both Allen-Gil and Lozano emphasized that the substances found are trace amounts and should not worry people. However, “we should be aware that this is happening,” Lozano said. “We should pay attention to it as a precautionary principle. We should try to ameliorate the presence of these compounds in our water system.”

More concerning to the research team is the buildup of contaminants in the water over time. In large quantities, these particles pose a danger to humans as they can collect other contaminants which might be harmful to digest, Allen-Gil said.

“When you add the metformin and the lidocaine and the microplastics and the zebra mussels and the harmful algal blooms and the hydrilla I think that’s where the issue of water quality comes in and [the harm is in] the cumulative effect of all of the stressors,” she said.

Moving forward, Lozano and Allen-Gil plan to work with Tompkins County legislators to adopt more restrictions on single-use plastics like the bag ban and to increase awareness around prescription drug programs around Ithaca. These programs target pharmaceutical compounds in the water by ensuring that drugs get processed correctly rather than flushed straight into the source.