Boxer Opening Statement: Pharmaceuticals in Our Nation's Drinking Water
April 15, 2008
(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
We are here today to conduct much-needed oversight on the presence of pharmaceuticals in our nation's water supplies.
Clean, safe drinking water is essential to all of us. It is especially important for children.
The National Academy of Sciences has found that children drink more water and eat more food in proportion to their body weight compared to adults. In addition, children's rapidly developing bodies, including their hormone systems that control their development, are especially vulnerable. Pregnant women also undergo a host of similarly delicate changes.
There are particular "windows of vulnerability" during our development when pregnant women and children may be especially susceptible to very low doses of some toxins.
Some pharmaceuticals now being found in our water may affect our hormone systems. Many pharmaceuticals are designed to affect our bodies at very low levels.
This all means that contaminants in water may have a more concentrated impact on pregnant women and children.
It is because of work by the United States Geological Survey, the Associated Press, and others, that we know that our water supplies can contain a mixture of pharmaceuticals.
Fish and wildlife that live in our waters are the familiar "canaries in a coal mine." Scientific evidence is growing that small levels of contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, can damage reproduction and development in fish and wildlife. Science is telling us: be careful.
What are federal agencies doing to prevent potentially dangerous exposures to pharmaceuticals in our drinking water? The answer: very little.
EPA in particular has failed to adequately address this problem.
EPA has failed to require the needed testing to determine the effects of these chemicals at low levels. In 1996, Congress told EPA in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Food Quality Protection Act to develop a program to identify and address chemicals that harm the natural balance of hormones in our body, called endocrine disrupting chemicals.
Yet, EPA is now nearly 6 years behind the schedule established in a court settlement to list the endocrine disrupting chemicals it will test. And EPA still has not even established all of the tests needed to detect these chemicals, much less evaluated the chemicals using those tests.
EPA now says it is not prepared to require drinking water systems to monitor for pharmaceuticals or to set standards for pharmaceuticals in tap water, because it doesn't have data showing harmful effects from low levels of exposure. But this lack of data is in large part a result of EPA's failure to ensure that companies that make these chemicals complete the testing needed to evaluate those effects.
Because of these problems, EPA has not set a drinking water standard for a single pharmaceutical. In fact, EPA hasn't even proposed to set a single health standard for any pharmaceutical in drinking water.
The result of these failures is that millions of Americans turn on their kitchen taps and drink low levels of pharmaceuticals in their water every day.
The agency also should be doing much more to prevent these pharmaceuticals from getting into our water in the first place. For example, EPA should better address the disposal of pharmaceuticals, and the releases of these chemicals from factory farms, sewage treatment plants, and sewage sludge.
A White House working group that was supposed to address the pharmaceuticals in the environment and related antibiotic resistance issues has missed its deadline to issue recommendations. The White House has insisted on keeping many records of this working group secret-which is unacceptable. All of the documents should be released to the public now.
The Associated Press story published in March documenting widespread drinking water contamination with pharmaceuticals highlights the importance and impact of the public right to know. When people are told about contaminants in their water, they rightfully demand action by their water suppliers and EPA.
In order to begin to meaningfully address this problem, I urge the Bush Administration to take the following 5 steps now:
(1) immediately release all of the records of the White House working group on pharmaceuticals in the environment;
(2) immediately start an accelerated testing process for pharmaceuticals and other toxic chemicals for their endocrine disrupting effects;
(3) immediately move forward with the process of establishing rules and programs to ensure safe disposal of waste pharmaceuticals;
(4) immediately ask water companies to voluntarily test their water for pharmaceuticals and to disclose the results;
(5) immediately start the process of issuing a rule requiring drinking water to be monitored for pharmaceuticals that are most likely to occur widely and to have effects at low doses, and also requiring public disclosure of the test results.
Americans have a right to expect that their government is ensuring that they can turn on their taps and have water that is safe for their children and families to drink. And they have a right to know what is in their drinking water.
We must protect those who are most vulnerable-pregnant women, infants, and children-from this problem. That is our moral duty.