Man-made pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals are making their way into our drinking water at unprecedented levels. What’s happening exactly and what can we do about it? Carrie Jennings is a field geologist who works with Freshwater, a leading public nonprofit dedicated to preserving freshwater resources and their surrounding watersheds.
Today, Carrie explains what’s messing with our water and what we can do about it. She explains how antibiotic use on farms and residue from anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, and other pharmaceutical drugs end up contaminating our waters. She goes over the worst toxins, dubbed “forever chemicals,” and tells us how to avoid them when making purchases. And she offers suggestions for what each of us can do to protect the quality of our water for our own health and the sake of everyone in our local community.
Listen to the episode here:
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
Clean water is essential to life. It nourishes, hydrates and sustains us. We couldn’t even live on this planet without it. Unfortunately, our water is more polluted than ever before. Man-made pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals are making their way into our drinking water at unprecedented levels. What’s happening exactly and what can we do about it? Our guest is Carrie Jennings. Carrie has been a Field Geologist for over many years. She currently works with Freshwater, a leading public nonprofit dedicated to preserving freshwater resources and their surrounding watersheds. Carrie explains how antibiotic used on farms, drugs that our neighbors may be taking like anti-inflammatories and antidepressants, and even what we throw away ends up contaminating our waters. She goes over the worst toxins dubbed forever chemicals, and she talks about how we can avoid them when making purchases. She also offers suggestions for what each of us can do to protect the quality of our water for our health and the sake of everyone in our community.
Welcome to the show, Carrie.
Thank you, Hilda.
I know you’re in Minnesota and you were saying something to me about how smallmouth bass have been affected in a river that runs through your particular city. Can you tell us more about that?
This is a river everyone will have heard of. This is the Mississippi River. Its headwaters are in Minnesota and it runs through our metropolitan area. It bisects the metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. That means that the cities get to enjoy those wonderful views and walks along the river, but they also take advantage of the flow of the river for their drinking water supply and their wastewater discharge. The major wastewater treatment plant for the city is located on the river downstream of every major city. The problem is what the wastewater treatment plant does is a gentle approach to water treatment.
You introduce oxygen to the water and you deal with the solids that float up to the surface. You encourage the beneficial organisms that can break down some of the pollutants. We put a lot more pollutants in our river, in our bodies, in our waste than we ever have before. Some things are slipping through the treatment system it seems. They are potentially accumulating or at least they’re in a high enough level downstream of the twin cities. They’re affecting the fish population in a slow reach of the river that we call Lake Pepin. In that Lake, 73% of the smallmouth bass that were sampled had both male and female parts. That should make you pause, stop and wonder a lot of things, but I’ll leave it at that.
I don’t even know where to start. It’s making me pause. That sounds horrible. Are people aware of this?
I don’t know how widely aware they are. People maybe are noticing changes in their ability to catch these fish, different abundances. Those are probably apparent to people that fish on these rivers and lakes. This is not just in Minnesota, this is nationwide. However, this is an extreme case. This seems to be a higher amount of this intersects fish than we’re seeing. In other parts of the country, it looks like they are much smaller percentages. I’m not sure why they’re so high. It looks like nationally, 33% of the smallmouth bass have male and female parts.
That’s observation, and then you start saying, “What does this mean?” It might mean the collapse of a fish population if they can no longer breed. It also means there’s something disrupting the endocrine system of these fish at a critical time in their development. What is that something? The problem with that question is there are many possible pharmaceuticals and chemicals that we’ve created that we put on in all kinds of products that are passing through our wastewater treatment plants. They are chemicals that we probably have only recently been able to detect in our wastewater, in our rivers and lakes because they are at such low concentrations that are hard to measure. Potentially, they are accumulating somewhere in the food chain and affecting these organisms.
Let’s say you don’t care that much about fish, which of course we should be paying attention to everything that’s happening in our environment, especially to flora and fauna because that might be affecting us too. Are these toxins in the water that we’re drinking?
Yes, they are because we are near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This river is used by many cities downstream between here and New Orleans as a drinking water source. It’s a pretty reliable flow and it can be brought into a treatment plant. Usually, surface water is treated more than if you’re pumping it out of the ground because it’s assumed that groundwater is a bit cleaner. Still, the treatment of drinking water is fairly old technology in most cities. It’s probably some filtration, maybe charcoal activated reactions. It’s probably not what you would hope like reverse osmosis and ozone treatment, treatment to remove every chemical. It’s usually trying to get rid of the things that we know cause diseases like bacteria and other contaminants that cause disease outbreaks.
Can we break down for a moment what is in the water exactly? When they noticed what was happening to these smallmouth basses that are downstream of the city, I know you said it’s a multitude of toxins, but what kind of things are we talking about? Can we be specific?
They call them endocrine-disrupting compounds. That’s where I would start to look. That can be anything from the birth control that women take that’s pretty much an artificial compound in most cases. It passes through your body and goes through the wastewater treatment system without much change, so I would start with those. They’re going to be the most active compounds from other mammals certainly. I’m not a biologist. I’m not sure how they would affect different organisms, but you can also get endocrine-disrupting compounds that look like hormones. You have probably heard of the plasticizer bisphenol A. It looks like a hormone, and so it disrupts the endocrine system by being similar enough to be substituted. There are many of these and we’re trying to figure those out. The other part is that our health department don’t understand what the limits of exposure to these compounds should be.
They are hormone-mimicking substances. These are disrupting the fish’s system and in all likelihood are disrupting ours as well.
That is the question that should be asked. Usually what we think about is at what level, what concentration would they have to be to start affecting humans as well? Are they concentrated in something we do with water? It’s a concern. Not only do we consume low levels of these in our drinking water, but we’re most likely are getting other things. Imagine the drugs that people typically take like anti-inflammatories, anything that has to do with other pain relief, illicit drugs, antidepressants or chemotherapy drugs. Some very potent drugs go into our rivers through the wastewater treatment system. Usually, those solids that are removed are spread on the land. Those are broadly applied and
hopefully, the bacteria in the soil are breaking those down and making those less toxic. That’s a hope. We know from other sampling in the surface water in Minnesota done by the United States Geological Survey that we are seeing pharmaceuticals in our rivers and streams, even away from metropolitan areas.
What’s interesting to me about this is it seems that waste never really disappears. In other words, we put things in the trash or we put things in our bodies that come out. We think that’s gone, flushed it away, but it doesn’t go completely away. It stays on the planet.
It never goes away. If I could get everyone to tour their city’s landfill and their city’s wastewater treatment plant, it would change a lot of people’s behaviors. When I toured ours and it’s called the Pigs Eye Plant. It’s located on Pigs Eye Lake, a strange name. They were taking two dumpster loads of flushable wipes out every day. Those flushable wipes get caught up in their conveyor system and they have to remove them by screening them out initially. What do they do with those? They truck them to a landfill and they spread them on the ground. There is not a way. You can’t flush, throw or dispose of something. It is going to be somewhere in the environment and hopefully in a not very toxic place. It’s changed my behavior significantly.
Tell us one way in which your behavior has changed since you’re aware of the fact that there is not a way?
I certainly have limited the new things that I purchase. I try to use things up until they’re gone. I try to use the least potent chemical that I can for any application like cleaning, brushing my teeth, or washing my hair. I try to use something as close to a natural formula as possible. Water is a wonderful solvent. You can do a lot of cleaning with water. If you add a little bit of something else like vinegar or baking soda, you can go a long way, or abrasive like Bon Ami cleaner for the sink. An abrasive and a little bit of water with that cleans the sink right up. You don’t need bleach. You don’t need antibiotics or antibacterials. Minnesota was the first state to ban Triclosan, the antibacterial that was common in soaps, and now it’s banned nationwide. Those chemicals that were artificially created for something that are extra slippery or extra something that material scientists came up with. There’s probably a reason why those don’t exist naturally. There’s probably not a natural way for them to break down.
You’re giving us a lot of food for thought. You mentioned antibiotics a moment ago. I know that we are trying to cut down on our antibiotic use because antibiotic-resistant bacteria then surge, and that can cause all kinds of problems, but I understand that antibiotics are also widely used for animals. Can you tell us about that and what the consequences of that might be even in our water systems?
That’s true. Everything from honey bees to beef cattle receives antibiotics. That’s usually because these organisms are being raised in a different way than the natural system.
Honey bees? That’s crazy.
They get a little tracheal mite. They get a little cough. They are susceptible to some diseases. You’ve probably heard about colony collapse disorder in honey bees. One of the things that beekeepers will do is put some antibiotics in the hive so that they can eat that as well as the pollen they’re collecting and the honey they’re storing. I was very good friends with the beekeeper who did this. I’m sure there are beekeepers that don’t take this approach, but they get tetracycline or they have in the past.
In any case, the bees are getting it.
What we need to be concerned about is the larger animals that are getting lots of it and they’re getting it on a daily dose. Sometimes those daily doses help them gain weight quickly or to keep disease outbreaks from getting away from the farmer in a confinement operation. They go into the animal and then they leave the animal through the urine and the feces, and then that is spread on the farm fields. I mentioned a little bit ago that the USGS was seeing some of these pharmaceuticals in streams that were far away from metropolitan areas. We’ve realized that a lot of it is coming from animal manure that is spread on the land as a crop amendment. People think they’re doing the good thing to return this organic matter with nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil, but coming with it is the pharmaceuticals that have been given to the animals. It looks like the highest levels of antibiotic use is in these confinement animals. It much exceeds the volume of antibiotics given to people.
Does it end up on our land, and then our water?
Yes, exactly. It ends up in the soil, and even when it’s in the soil, we can see that it significantly affects the microorganisms that are in the soil community. It reduces the number of microorganisms. It also is the place where these antibiotic-resistant genes are probably starting to develop, then that goes into the streams from there. It does look like people that live within a certain distance like 1 or 2 miles of fields that are spread with manure do have more antibiotic-resistant infections. We should be afraid of that. We should be thinking about the health of the planet as one health. It is the health of the people, but it also is the health of the animals. It’s the microorganisms in the soil. It’s the creatures living in the water. There is a growing initiative to think about the planet that way as one healthy system.
If we think of land as an object, that it’s ours to dominate and extricate what we need from it. We’re not nurturing it. We’re not realizing and recognizing that our future is tied to the health of this living rock that we’re abiding on.
As that example, we know that soil fertility depends so much on the community of organisms that’s living in the soil itself. They create the ability of that soil to soak up water and to store carbon. Every aspect of the fertility to release the nitrogen to the plants is controlled by the microbiome in that soil profile. There’s this growing awareness of how important that is and how we can strip the land of its fertility by beating the life out of it with chemicals, and the conventional farming practices that we’ve been doing for the last 60 to 80 years.
I’ve heard of a chemical that has been dubbed the forever chemical. What is that and what is it doing to us?
That takes us away from farming and more into these chemicals that we’ve created for our convenience. If you have flame-retardant pajamas on your children, or if you have Scotchgarded your carpet or your couch, because you didn’t want stains to soak in, or if you have a non-stick pan, then you’ve been exposed to these chemicals. These are PFOA, PFOS and PFAS that stands for Per- and Polyfluorinated Compounds. They are designed to be slippery and fireproof. They are used at airports to put out fires on runways. In some places it feels like they are an essential thing. In other places they are convenient, but they were created in such a way that they are slippery and impossible for organisms to get into the core of this compound and break it down. That’s how they were designed. They are good at what being designed for that. That means that they are persisting in the environment forever it seems. The other thing is that they can be found in the blood of almost anyone on the planet and any being on the planet, including polar bears in the Arctic.
How did they get that far?
They must be getting airborne at some point, perhaps in the creation of these compounds. This is the end of the 3M and DuPont, and the places that make Teflon. The factories themselves can create the emissions. The waste that the factories discard in landfills, and they’re getting into the surface water, the air, the groundwater, and they’re not going away. At very low levels, they are carcinogenic. This is a case where they are concentrated in the human body in breast milk. In Minnesota, they have set the standard for exposure based on the exposure of an infant to the concentration in the mother’s breast milk. We have a fairly good and low standard for these. Unfortunately, we also have a significant part of our metropolitan area that’s contaminated with them. We’re working with money that was from a settlement with 3M out of court to find an alternate water supply for some of these people that are impacted.
I’m putting a lot of different pieces together because as you know on the show, we’ve interviewed a lot of different health experts. Some of whom are very concerned about radiation. For example, if you live near an airport, you’re going to have a high exposure as the planes are communicating to the tower and there’s all of this messaging going back and forth. I thought that’s problematic. I don’t want to live near an airport, but now you’re giving me another reason not to live near an airport if they’re using these PFAS or PFOS or whatever
Even small airports use these and they practice with them as well. You can probably find maps now of where this contamination is in a lot of the states that are most impacted. Michigan is another state that has a significant amount of impact. Minnesota, for sure because we’re the home of 3M, but I would say that no one’s exempt. In fact, I’ve known about this for a long time. My son is 26 and I knew when I was pregnant that I should avoid certain things. I don’t know why the broader population didn’t get that message not to use non-stick pans or Scotchgard, and I’ve never put them in flame-retardant pajamas. I don’t know why people don’t understand that or haven’t heard that message.
I imagine the companies are all about keeping these products on the market because they’re lucrative. It sounds good. I don’t want my kid to get caught up in flames or something.
Scotchgard is gone. You will not find that product anymore.
That’s a relief. I remember putting my kids in t-shirts all the time and I thought, I’m not being a good mom. They’re always wearing their dad’s t-shirts for sleep but in the end, it turned out okay.
That’s good. Another category of clothing that I avoid is waterproof clothing. Anything that has been sprayed on the outside with the waterproofing, and the same thing that you would put on a suede boot or something those are the same class of chemicals.
You’ve given us so much to think about, Carrie. I don’t want to get too discouraged about the poisons that we’re putting all around us. Seriously, what can we do to mitigate our exposure to pollutants and help those who are downstream from us in effect?
Every time you reach for a product on the grocery store shelf, the department store shelf, the hardware store or the pharmacy, think about whether or not you would want to drink that, even water it down and drink it. If you look at the label of that and they are not telling you what chemicals in it, and they don’t have to for nonfood items be suspicious of it. If you are looking at a label and it has very explicit instructions of how to dispose of it like wrap it in paper, don’t let it get near fish and your dog, don’t put it on your grass, be concerned because those are harsh chemicals.
If you don’t understand what is making the toilet water blue when you put something in there or what you’re spraying in your shower to make the water sheet off the walls of the shower if you don’t know how that’s happening, if you don’t know those chemical reactions, find another way to clean those things. A little bit of elbow grease and a little bit of a non-toxic abrasive like calcium carbonate is going to clean it as fine. Don’t look for the magic solution that’s going to clean things, especially in a place where you’re exposing your body and a lot of your skin areas exposed in the most vulnerable. I would say that would be in a shower situation.
Look for products that are natural, that have not been made with chemicals that we have created in the last decade or so. These are not as regulated as closely as you would think. Usually, they are taken off the market once problems are recognized. Pay attention to what your health department is doing. In Minnesota, we have a process where we can nominate chemicals or contaminants of emerging concern for critical evaluation by our health department. They will dig into the literature and the exposure limits to humans, and set standards that will have to be complied to by the wastewater treatment plants and the drinking water treatment plants.
If your state is not doing that, have them look to other states that are a little farther ahead. The EPA does not necessarily lead on this, but it seems to be coming from some of the states where water is of higher priority, and they have a little bit more money to spend on protecting the health of people that are using it. Finally, if you do have concerns about anything from these endocrine-disrupting compounds in your pipes potentially, treat your water before you drink it. I would always go with a treatment system as opposed to buying bottled water. You could potentially also drink distilled water where a lot of these things have been removed by making the water into steam and letting it recondense. I have a reverse osmosis system on my house. I know that people who are in the PFOA area in Minnesota rely on reverse osmosis, and then also some charcoal filtration added after that. Treat it more than once, and then serve it with confidence that you’ve removed all that you can.
Carrie, you do speak so knowledgeably. Remind me how you got into this field. What piqued your interest about our water and our environment?
I have to admit that I’m not a chemist. I’m not a molecular biologist. I’m a geologist. I spent the first several years of my career understanding the distribution of the geology of Minnesota. I knew what the surface sediment was, how deep it was over the bedrock, where the water was held, how the water moved through the system, where erosion was happening. As a result of mapping and driving every single mile and canoeing every river in half of the state, I started to notice changes in the water and water quality, and heard a lot of local concerns. I saw places where the surface water had become unswimmable and unfishable. That moved me into this part of my career, which is as Research and Policy Director for a nonprofit in Minnesota that’s dedicated to protecting our water for the future, groundwater and surface water.
Freshwater has enabled me to broaden my scientific understanding of water quality and quantity in Minnesota, and also look for solutions. These can be solutions that we put into law at the state level, or they might be solutions that we convey to the public or some local levels of government so that they can act on their behalf. The other thing I like to think that geology has given me besides this broad landscape understanding is the sense of deep time. As a geologist, I only studied the last two million years of earth history. I study the period that was primarily glaciated. It may be 3.5 million. I’ll push it back to that.
The planet is 4.6 billion years old and geologists think in those timescales. They think in hundreds of millions of years, and major extinction events, and how the whole planet can seeming seemingly die off when a meteorite impacts it, but then a little bit of life survives and grows again to become a complex biological community. We think in these big cycles, and I think that makes us a little calmer in the face of threats like we’re seeing now, but it also means that we also see a planet that survives without us. We are so brief on this planet, people are. We haven’t even been around for 4 million years. We can see that the planet can survive for a long time without us, and it will go on. In some ways, I see what we’re doing as a huge experiment with the planet that might end up having catastrophic consequences for our success, but that the planet will go on.
Have you encountered skeptics who are like, “Things will go on. Look at me, you’re saying we’ve got this polluted water, but I drink it. I’m totally fine?” Have you ever run into people like that? What do you say to people who have a short-term view of what’s going on?
I have run into people with a very short-term view like if their water makes good coffee, they’re fine with it, and that’s a specific example. People that work in the gasoline industry that like the smell of it and hold it up to their face. We learn more about the disease and its impacts on the human body and we’re figuring out some of these ways that we’re making ourselves sick, depressed and obese. A lot of it might be these low-level environmental contaminants. You can’t convince everybody, but those people that do care about their health will examine the information.
How do you deal with a skeptic who says, “I’m fine, we’re fine. Maybe it’s normal for this part of the river to get like that?”
More than the skeptic, that would be an individual decision and they’re not impacting a lot of lives. If that skeptic is one that holds office, or one that has influenced locally on how the water is treated or the laws, then I would be concerned. I would work hard to convince at least those around that person, that this is real, that this is happening. Of more of a concern to me is not the skeptic, but the person that deliberately tries to confuse people. This might be a corporate entity that deliberately tries to obscure information or extract the most value out of a resource while endangering people. That is more concerning to me. It feels more evil. It feels like it’s done with knowledge and intent. That is also a harder battle.
It seems to me that now is a time for us to open our eyes. You’ve done a lot of that in this conversation to what’s going on around us, and realize that we need to make small choices that will probably make a big impact in the long run.
Small choices make a huge impact if done by the many. As scientists, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything. Our views will change as we’re able to measure and see things in the future, but simpler is better. The planet is limited in its ability to clean and filter water. The planet is limited in the other natural resources that we have. There is going to be a place where we will run out. We already have run out of some things, or they’ve become so expensive that we can’t use them anymore. There’s going to be a helium crunch coming up. It seems like it’s something that we shouldn’t run out of, but it’s such a light gas that it can escape the atmosphere and it’s getting harder and harder. You can’t create it. It’s one of these things that are part of our atmosphere. You can capture it and concentrate it, but you can’t create helium. We’re reaching peak helium. In some places, we probably are reaching the limit of our ability to provide clean and safe drinking water. It should be a fundamental right to have access to clean water.
You’ve given us some practical tips already, Carrie, but I want to pose a question to you that I often pose at the end, if the readers could do one thing to improve or protect their health, what would you recommend that they do?
Get your water tested for the common chemicals like arsenic nitrate or some easy to measure contaminant that comes from human action. If it’s there, treat your water.
That’s excellent advice. Thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been enlightening.
About Carrie Jennings
Carrie joined Freshwater in 2016. She has been a field geologist for 24 years, 22 of those with the Minnesota Geological Survey and two with the DNR, Division of Lands and Minerals.
For the last two years she was the science reports lead for the County Geologic Atlas program at the DNR. She applies her understanding of glacial geology and landscape evolution to shape policy and technical approaches for managing surface water and groundwater, avoiding hazards, and using resources wisely.
Carrie and her husband live on a 120-acre farm which is primarily in a permanent conservation easement through the Dakota County Farmland and Natural Areas Program.
Livestock is limited to a dozen chickens, a dog and a couple of cats. She has twice been elected town board supervisor and served on the planning commission for Eureka Township.