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EOH Symposium: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Water Systems

EOH Symposium on Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in Water Systems: Potential Impacts and Sustainable Solutions

pill bottle

Perhaps you’ve heard that you’re not supposed to flush old prescription medications down the toilet, or that among the complications of pollution are endocrine disruptors - chemical pollutants that are recognized by the body as hormones - which can disrupt healthy cell function. The general term for pollutants such as these is PPCP’s (Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products). Earlier this spring, CSUN EOH faculty, along with 188 alumni, professionals, and students, met with leading researchers and policy makers on the CSUN campus to discuss potential impacts and sustainable solutions regarding PPCPs and to explore the field of emerging contaminants.

CSUN is uniquely positioned to hold these symposia in environmental health because environmental health scientists are often at the nexus of communication between scientists and policy makers. Sponsored by the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH), its Alumni Chapter and its board, and the Environmental and Occupational Health Student Organization (EOHSA) the symposium, entitled Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in Water Systems: Potential Impacts and Sustainable Solutions examined the presence of PPCPs in drinking and surface waters, investigated potential human and environmental health impacts and discussed remediation technologies to provide a better understanding of the broad scope of challenges PPCP’s present.

“The symposium was put together by a strong team of faculty, students and alumni. The Alumni Chapter Board and I are proud to be part of this project,” said Chapter President Bob Finkelstein. "The collaboration in making our 5th annual symposium a success is extremely gratifying. We look forward to our successful tradition of working with the EOH Department and students in presenting thought provoking and timely topics to professional and student communities."

speakers, faculty and EOHSA student group president standing at the podium.

Dr. Antonio Machado is EOH faculty whose research focuses on toxicology and gene-environment interactions talked to us about the symposium. “Our panel of experts addressed analysis and identification of PPCP compounds and their potential to cause negative health effects. We also looked at risk assessment regarding human health and environmental health.”

“A symposium like this one created a fantastic opportunity for students to see where communication breakdowns occur. It might seem reasonable that science would dictate policy, but it doesn’t, and when we get groups of students together for events like this one, the reasons become clear. Students learn how rules are made and that changes are not systematic. This view is not always immediately apparent from a classroom perspective, so students get a lot out of seeing how professionals from different areas of the field approach similar subjects.”

This is major element of the overarching theme of all these symposia: to bring together the elements within the issues and facilitate communication.

PPCPs include a large and diverse group of chemicals. Because of the nature of their use, they tend to be widely disseminated at low concentrations in the aquatic environment. “And they enter the nation’s waterways from a variety of sources, not all of them as controllable as household disposal of unwanted medications,” Machado said. “Sewage treatment plant effluent and sludge (often used as fertilizer on agricultural fields), pharmaceutical production plant effluent, veterinary medicine (particularly in agriculture), and aquaculture all play their roles.”

fish swimming

“We’ve made great advances in techniques for analysis, and we can now identify PPCPs at very low concentrations in sewage treatment plant influent and effluent, surface waters, groundwater, sea water, and drinking water.” Machado said. Pharmaceuticals present a special problem, since they’re designed to be strongly biologically active, to be readily taken up by the body, and to resist degradation. “This presents a paradox,” Machado added, “The very qualities that make pharmaceuticals stay in the body to do their work are what make them persist in the environment. They are bioactive at very low levels and they can accumulate in the food chain, so these factors are of particular concern.”

As a population, we have dramatically increased our use of pharmaceutical drugs and household products containing antibiotics in recent decades. So the concern over the potential environmental health effects of low-level, persistent PPCPs in our water supplies has driven a great deal of recent research in this area. Potential solutions for PPCPs in the environment are as varied as the compounds themselves. “For some pharmaceuticals, and for household products containing antibiotics, public education on proper disposal of medications can make a dramatic difference,” said Machado.

For other sources of contamination, such as the agricultural industry, policy and practice changes may become necessary. As scientists, industry, policymakers, educators, and other stakeholders grapple with the far-reaching and complex implications of PPCPs in the environment, the need for interdisciplinary communication becomes of paramount importance.


The department was proud to include a distinguished panel of speakers to the event:

Shane Snyder, University of Arizona, Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Co-Director Arizona Laboratory for Emerging Contaminants (ALEC)
Dr. Snyder’s presentation, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in the Aquatic Environment, introduced the topic of PPCPs in water systems, including the various classes of PPCPs and how often (and at what levels) they are detected in surface water and drinking water systems. He discussed opportunities for improvements in analytical technology as well as sources of PPCPs, mechanisms of biological activity and the possibility of negative human health effects.

Octavia Conerly, US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water
The EPA Office of Water’s (OW) role is to protect our Nation’s watersheds and drinking water supplies against contaminants in our waterways. Connerly’s presentation, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in the Environment: EPA Initiatives and Strategy explored ways that OW works within a national framework of protecting human health and the environment using technology and implementing regulations on a watershed basis. This is all driven by a strong emphasis on sound science, transparency, public information, and partnerships. Conerly spoke about ways that OW seeks to understand, manage and reduce hazards posed by PPCPs in our waters to meet EPA’s central goal of protecting water quality, human and aquatic health, and assuring safe drinking water.

Daniel Schlenk, University of California, Riverside, Professor of Aquatic Ecotoxicology and Environmental Toxicology
Dr. Schlenk’s presentation focused on aquatic toxicity associated with various classes of PPCPs and how various biochemical factors influence susceptibility in aquatic organisms. Contamination of Water Systems with Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs): Ecotoxicological Ramifications covered fate and transport of PPCPs in aquatic ecosystems while exploring the development of bioassays for endocrine disrupting compounds. He also discussed the effects of these chemicals on endocrine function, gene regulation and health in fish.

Michael Flournoy, Technical Director at Test America, West Sacramento Laboratory
Flournoy’s presentation Quantification of PPCPs in Water: Current Technology and Challenges posed by Adverse Condition focused on testing strategies for PPCPs in water. He explored the association between triclosan levels and dioxins and furnas in water systems and discussed the effect of ambient salinity on testing for PPCPs.

Eva Steinle-Darling, Erler & Kalinowski, Inc.
Steinle-Darling focused on the fate and transport of PPCPs in water systems, including natural attenuation of various chemical classes. Her presentation, Natural Attenuation and the Potential for Treatment of PPCPs in Water outlined the difficulties associated with approaching a water-contamination problem as complex and pervasive as PPCPs. Steinle-Darling also discussed potential treatment modalities for drinking water systems.

About Antonio Machado:
A graduate of CSUN and UCLA, Dr. Machado’s research focuses on gene-environment interactions in toxicology. He is a peer reviewer for the CDC/ATSDR, and he has supervised students in the Minority Access to Research Careers program funded by the NIH. Machado serves as chair of the California Registration Board for Environmental Health Specialists. Machado is the coordinator of the EOH student group EOHSA. He teaches EOH 101, EOH 353, EOH 456, EOH 554, and advanced toxicology.

- Robert Finkelstein and Antonio Machado contributed to this article.