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Emerging Substances of Concern Fact Sheet

 

  1. What are emerging substances of concern?
  2. Where are emerging substances of concern found?
  3. Why are we finding these compounds in water?
  4. What do the data show?
  5. How do these concentrations compare to normal doses of medications?
  6. Is it surprising that we are finding these compounds?
  7. Why must we protect other organisms in the environment?
  8. Can we reduce the amount of emerging substances of concern released to the environment?
  9. How should I dispose of unused medications?
  10. Is my drinking water safe?  
  11. Should I drink bottled water?
  12. Should I install a water treatment device in my home? 
  13. Is reclaimed water safe? 
  14. Is additional research needed? 
  15. How will research results be used?

Emerging Substances of Concern (ESOC) Report

This report summarizes the conclusions of an internal Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Workgroup that was formed to evaluate strategies to effectively address a wide variety of potential contaminants, commonly referred to as Emerging Substances of Concern, or ESOC.


What are emerging substances of concern? 

Emerging substances of concern, sometimes known as “microconstituents,” are chemicals found in a wide array of consumer goods, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Some of emerging substances of concern are considered to be “endocrine disrupters” (compounds such as synthetic estrogen, PCBs, dioxin, and some pesticides that may interfere with or modify hormone processes within an organism). ...back to top

Where are emerging substances of concern found? 

Emerging substances of concern may be found in very low concentrations in surface water, ground water, domestic wastewater, industrial wastewater, agricultural runoff, reclaimed water, and other waters. Many of these compounds also may be found in soils and in the air. They are a fact of modern, industrialized living. ...back to top

Why are we finding these compounds in water? 

With the advancement of scientific laboratory methods, it is now possible to identify and measure many more compounds in very low concentrations. We can now detect compounds in the environment even as their concentrations may be declining with improved waste management practices. ...back to top

What do the data show?  

In a 2002 study the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) sampled for 95 compounds at 139 locations in 30 states (generally “worst case” sites where concentrations would be expected to be higher). One or more emerging substances of concern were detected at 80 percent of the sampling locations with a median number of 7 compounds found. (Florida locations were: one site on the lower Suwannee River with 12 compounds found, and another on the upper Peace River with 15 compounds found.) Four classes of compounds accounted for 86% of the total concentration of emerging substances of concern measured – detergent metabolites (36%), steroids (21%), plasticizers (20%), and non-prescription drugs (9%). Other classes of compounds each contributed less than 2% of the total concentration of emerging substances of concern. ...back to top

Of the 30 emerging substances of concern detected most frequently in the USGS study, 9 had median concentrations between 0.0001 and 0.001 mg/L (parts per million), and the other 21 compounds had median concentrations less than 0.0001 mg/L. Of the 95 compounds, 19 had median concentrations less than detection. Fourteen have drinking water standards or human health advisory levels and were detected at levels generally orders of magnitude less than the standard or health advisory levels. The USGS noted that aquatic toxicity studies had been conducted for 53 of the 95 compounds studied. The median concentrations found in the USGS sampling generally were orders of magnitude less than the toxic values reported in the referenced toxicity studies. (See http://toxics.usgs.gov/pubs/OFR-02-94 for the full USGS report.) ...back to top

How do these concentrations compare to normal doses of medications?  

Acetaminophen, a major ingredient in nonprescription pain medications, commonly is taken in doses of 650 mg. In the USGS study, this compound was found at a median concentration of 0.00011 mg/L. At this concentration, a person would have to drink nearly 6 million liters of water to equal a single 650-mg dose of Acetaminophen. Ibuprofen is another leading pain medication that is commonly taken in doses of 400 mg. The median concentration found in the USGS study was 0.0002 mg/L. Lincomycin, an antibiotic, is normally administered in doses of 500 mg. The USGS study reported a median concentration of 0.00006 mg/L. Other studies confirm that these compounds are found at concentrations that are orders of magnitude less than normal doses. ...back to top

Is it surprising that we are finding these compounds? 

No. These compounds are associated with human activity and scientists are now actively looking for them. Many of these compounds are used to enhance our quality of life by protecting human health, improving consumer goods, and optimizing agricultural production. It is inevitable that small amounts of these compounds will be released to the environment. It is also likely that these compounds have been in surface waters for decades and, without analytical methods to enable their identification and quantification, have remained undetected until recently. ...back to top

Why must we protect other organisms in the environment? 

While considering human health, protecting other organisms in the ecosystem is essential. In the aquatic environment, small organisms at the bottom of the food chain may prove to be the most critical. Their small size means that they will likely be more sensitive to lower concentrations of these materials than humans. ...back to top

Can we reduce the amount of emerging substances of concern released to the environment? 

Yes, at least in part, by properly disposing of unused medications. Studies show that a significant percentage of medications are not used and are discarded – mostly by flushing down the toilet. ...back to top

How should I dispose of unused medications? 

Do not flush them down the toilet or other drains. Put unused medications in the trash. Make sure you follow the Department’s guidelines for protecting your privacy and preventing misuse of medications discarded in the trash. (See www.dep.state.fl.us/waste/categories/medications/default.htm.) ...back to top

Is my drinking water safe?  

Yes. Compliance with current drinking water standards assures that public drinking water sources are safe. Florida's drinking water utilities have an exemplary track record in delivering safe, affordable, high-quality, drinking water. There is no evidence that the concentrations of emerging substances of concern reported in recent studies pose a threat to drinking water supplies.  ...back to top

Should I drink bottled water? 

This is a personal decision. Bottled water is held to the same basic water quality criteria as drinking water from the tap, although it does not have to be monitored as extensively. It is likely that bottled water will contain very small concentrations of some emerging substances of concern, similar to those that may be found in tap water.  ...back to top

Should I install a water treatment device in my home? 

Again, this is a personal decision. Whether or not home water treatment devices effectively remove emerging substances of concern is largely unknown. Data suggests a variable effectiveness, depending on the type of device, its operation and maintenance.  ...back to top

Is reclaimed water safe? 

Yes. There is no evidence that low concentrations of emerging substances of concern pose concerns for the range of water reuse activities practiced in Florida.  ...back to top

Is additional research needed? 

Yes. Research has always been an integral part of water management. Fortunately, research related to emerging substances of concern is underway and yielding valuable information. Studies to define dose-response relationships, understand the fate and transport of emerging substances of concern in the environment, and evaluate treatment processes are underway for a number of these compounds and recently for combinations of these compounds. We have learned much about effective water and wastewater treatment processes. Studies also have demonstrated that rapid infiltration basins (a common reuse method) and passage through soils are effective in reducing concentrations of the evaluated emerging substances of concern. Because of the very large number of chemicals involved, it must be noted that we will never have complete knowledge, but rigorous scientific investigations will make us better informed and better protected.  ...back to top

How will research results be used? 

In the future, research may identify needed regulations and controls. Initially, this may involve the establishment of new drinking water standards, an ongoing process that predates the identification of emerging substances of concern. New drinking water standards are established by either the federal government or by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. If additional drinking water standards are adopted, Florida’s ground water standards would automatically be updated to be identical. Changes to ground water standards could dictate additional controls in wastewater treatment and water reuse. Studies on aquatic organisms could lead to refined surface water quality standards and, in turn, possible refinements in industrial and domestic wastewater programs and in the agricultural arena. The results also could lead to the development of cooperative and voluntary initiatives, such as pharmacies taking back unused medications for proper disposal. This is how science and public health protection progress. Future refinements to water quality standards and regulatory programs must be driven by sound scientific principles and reasoned public policy choices.  ...back to top

Last updated: February 01, 2013

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