Trio to conduct new study on pharmaceutical impact

A technical committee of the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council will put together parameters for a study of what pharmaceuticals are being released into Okanagan Lake from wastewater treatment plants.

Following a presentation from Dr. Jeff Curtis of UBC Okanagan’s department of earth and environmental sciences at Thursday’s meeting, council members agreed it is important to conduct uniform testing throughout the valley into the issue.

The three-person committee includes Bernie Bauer, dean of the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at UBCO, Mike Adams, Interior Health Authority drinking water officer and Curtis.

Because of the Okanagan Basin’s unique hydrology and morphology, Curtis said there’s less frequent flushing than in most bodies of water where treated wastewater is released.

“Most urban centres discharge into huge volumes of water, and it’s gone in days,” he noted.

However, this basin has one of the smallest per capita water supplies in Canada, so there is low potential dilution of wastewater here.

Water stands here for a long time instead of the flushing action of months in most systems, so it could be in residence in Okanagan Lake for decades or even a century, he said.

That puts this region at exceptional risk, he said.

“If it goes in your mouth or you wash your house with it, it goes into the wastewater treatment plant,” he explained.

Of concern are pharmaceuticals that can change the metabolism of organisms (including people) by exposure to them.

Called endocrine disrupters, they include synthetic hormones or blockers, plasticizers and other personal care products.

Such products as ibuprofen can have toxic effects on certain microbes as well.

Many of these compounds are not detected by standard testing of effluent from treatment plants, nor are they visible.

However, their effects can include feminizing of fish and amphibians, according to research done in Europe, the U.S. and in other parts of Canada.

Analysis of the suite of compounds which could potentially be disruptive to organisms can be expensive, Curtis warned council members.

Adams said Interior Health has already approached some water suppliers to do testing because there’s no baseline information on pharmaceuticals, and that will be the next thing to come up.

A number of communities draw water from Okanagan Lake, he said, so there is concern about drinking water.

Council chairman Tom Siddon said he felt UBCO should be encouraged to handle sample analysis and coordinate the research.

There are market implications in knowing too much, he said.

Council members agreed it is important to do the testing on a valley-wide basis, not piecemeal, so there is a consistent baseline of information.

Members agreed some funding to get the work off the ground would be available from the council.

Chief Fabian Alexis, of the Okanagan Nation, said he would support such research in conjunction with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

He said the Westbank First Nation has a lake intake, as has Lake Country.

Efforts will be made to involve both federal and provincial environment ministries as well.

The committee is to present a project design to the council for approval in two months.