HAMMOND | Common chemicals and medicines we use daily are increasingly ending up in the water supply, and not all these chemicals are eliminated by water treatment plants, according to an expert who spoke at Tuesday's Purdue Water Institute Lecture Series
Yet, those who get their drinking water from large sources such as Lake Michigan aren't facing any real health hazards from these chemical compounds if the water treatment facilities are functioning well, said Jorg E. Drewes, a professor of environmental science and engineering and director of research for the National Science Foundation.
"That's a lot of water in Lake Michigan. You get a lot of dilution. I'd not be concerned, providing you have a good system for water treatment; as long as the wastewater discharge pipe isn't next to the intake pipe," Drewes said during his presentation at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond.
The problem of possible health hazards is more prevalent in areas that get drinking water from rivers and groundwater or that treat and reuse waste water for drinking water, he said. These are common practices in the western U.S.
Chemicals of emerging concern, or CECs, originate in food additives, personal care products, household substances such as detergents, disinfection by–products, pharmaceuticals and compounds used to keep people safe from fire. Drewes conducted studies for the NSF that looked at 25 common chemicals such as caffeine, sugar substitutes and acetaminophen.
"CECs can occur in concentrations in water that might cause adverse effects to aquatic life or human health," he said.
A variety of water and wastewater treatment processes remove more than 90 percent of the CECs, Drewes said.
"Conventional waste water treatment is still very effective for a wide range of chemicals," he said. "We need diversity in treatment. No process exists that represents 100 percent removal."
With more environmental concerns, the professor said engineers are looking for more energy–efficient water treatment systems that have low carbon footprints.
"It is all linked to a sanitation paradigm that hasn't changed since Roman times," Drewes said. "The more population you have, the more chemicals and waste are released."
In addition, the current infrastructure system for urban water treatment is 50 to 100 years old and has a useful life of about 20 more years, he said.
"To replace the urban water infrastructure is estimated to cost $300 billion to $1 trillion."