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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How Did Your Cocaine Urine Get in My Drinking Water?

Posted by on Tue, May 13, 2014 at 10:25 AM

Over the past few days, you might have seen some blaring headlines and hyperventilating ledes about recent British tests detecting trace amounts of cocaine metabolites—evidence that cocaine has passed through a human body—in public drinking water. Most of these articles commenced to fretting over whether Britain has a cocaine problem. (Answer: The entire western hemisphere has a cocaine problem.) As the Gloucester Citizen put it:

Cocaine is now so widely used in Britain it can be found in our drinking water, tests have shown.

Inspections of tap water at four different sites found a metabolised form of the illegal drug, which showed it had already passed through the human body.

The levels were so low that they posed no danger to health, but come as a startling indication of how widespread drug use has become.

The Guardian calmly pointed out that there are trace elements of all kinds of alarming-sounding things in our water supply, so the presence of cocaine metabolites isn't necessarily a "startling indication" of anything—except, perhaps, how much urine gets into the water supply.

How much piss has to get into a public water system to show detectable amounts of drug use? And how common is it for wastewater—even treated wastewater—to wind up back in public drinking water?

I emailed the question to Seattle Public Utilities and Lynn Kirby, a "water quality engineer" for SPU, sent this very helpful reply:

I’ll use the example of the Mississippi River. There are cities and towns along the entire stretch of that river, and many rivers in the US and Canada. Almost all wastewater treatment plant outlets (the water that is produced after the waste has been treated) end up going to the nearest river. And many towns also draw their drinking water from rivers. So the further downstream you go on a river, the more likely you are to find medications, personal care product components, and their metabolites. The source is humans who are taking the medications, and either having it pass through their bodies (ending up in the wastewater), or humans dumping their extra medications down the toilet to dispose of them. The wastewater treatment processes do not aim to remove these trace compounds. In addition, drinking water treatment processes do not aim to remove these trace compounds.

In Seattle we are extremely fortunate to have source waters that do not have human influences like most rivers. There is no industry, agriculture, recreation, habitation, or wastewater treatment plants in our watersheds. But out of curiosity, we did test our sources a few years ago for a variety of medications and personal care products. Not surprisingly we didn’t find anything. Our drinking water comes from the mountains. The wastewater effluent from the City of Seattle goes to Puget Sound.

Thanks, Lynn. And chalk that up as another benefit of living in a city wedged between the mountains and the sea.


Comments (25) RSS

Newest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
It is the best water source for schools and offices.Mains-fed water coolers are an ideal, cost effective solution for businesses and organisations who want to offer the best health care for schools and offices.
Posted by Water-Smart on October 14, 2014 at 12:26 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 29
@ 26, there we go. Thank you.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 14, 2014 at 6:55 AM · Report this
MarkyMark 26
@24 actually it DOES arrive in Seattle via special pipelines, bypassing communities.

I've taken the Seattle Public Utilities summer Tap Water Tour of the Cedar River Watershed twice over the years, and highly recommend it.

Posted by MarkyMark on May 13, 2014 at 10:57 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 24
@ 17, I did.

You people are missing the point. The water still flows through communities from those points along the watershed. It doesn't arrive in Seattle via special pipeline bypassing those places. It's not bottled at the source, or trucked down to the reservoirs about town.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 13, 2014 at 10:27 PM · Report this
Shame homeopathy isn't real or we would all be tripping ball 24/7...
Posted by dutchie on May 13, 2014 at 6:00 PM · Report this
I wonder if the average age of first menarche is higher in Seattle than England. I recall a study in England arguing that hormones in the water had accelerated the onset of puberty.
Posted by wxPDX on May 13, 2014 at 4:54 PM · Report this
A few years ago the Associated Press did a big series (…) on pharmaceutical products often found in drinking water—"A vast array of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones."

The good news for the 1.3 million people who drink Seattle water is we're not getting any of that bad stuff.

Seattle's water comes from 103,138 acres of protected mountain watersheds above the Cedar and South Fork Tolt Rivers—96 percent of which is owned by the City of Seattle. The other 4 percent is in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Reverse Polarity is right: we're drinking pure snowmelt and rain. We have, arguably, the best water in America.
Posted by Aquaphile on May 13, 2014 at 3:54 PM · Report this
venomlash 20
@15: Grinned.
Posted by venomlash on May 13, 2014 at 3:29 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 19
@12, actually, Matt, Seattle is drinking pure snow melt, more or less. That is mostly where the Cedar River watershed is sourced.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on May 13, 2014 at 2:46 PM · Report this
The sources of water for Seattle come from massive bowl-shaped mountain watersheds above 1,500ft elevation in areas where all building (and even foot access) above 1,000ft has been prohibited since the turn of the century. These enormous swaths of undeveloped land are not only great for wildlife and the environment, but they provide among the cleanest (and tastiest) drinking water in for a city this size the world over. There are literally no 'upstream' towns or development as the watersheds are completely closed systems at the 'headwater' and fed only by rain and snow. They are also in remote areas and are strictly guarded.

Posted by MossbackDad on May 13, 2014 at 2:43 PM · Report this
@12 Read the damn link from @8.
Posted by deign_to_say on May 13, 2014 at 1:27 PM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 16
Another reason not to live in the south.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on May 13, 2014 at 1:17 PM · Report this
Posted by meanie on May 13, 2014 at 1:05 PM · Report this
Sandiai 13
Matt, you're from Denver?
Posted by Sandiai on May 13, 2014 at 12:54 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 12
@ 5, I'm from Denver, where water is collected on the other side of the Continental Divide and tunneled back to our side. I'm aware of the differences between watershed and location. I'm also aware that there are a number of small towns upstream from some of those collection points, and a few others along the streams where that water is diverted. They all rely upon the same sources as we do, and as a result their treated wastewater is put into our system. I remember learning in college that even here, at the top of America, our water has on average "passed through two sets of human kidneys," in the lecturer's truly unforgettable phrasing.

It's still very clean and much fresher than the drinking water of most other American cities, but it's not like we're drinking fresh snowmelt or anything. I doubt Seattle is, either.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 13, 2014 at 12:25 PM · Report this
JonnoN 11
Thanks for the laugh @6/@7
Posted by JonnoN on May 13, 2014 at 12:13 PM · Report this
@7. Great idea. Think of all the hydrogen power that would create.
Posted by Foonken2 on May 13, 2014 at 12:12 PM · Report this
Jaymz 9
Further to @6,7 - yes, these chemicals appear to be bypassing the humans in Seattle and ending up in the Puget Sound marine life - great! Why don't we "aim" to get this stuff out during waste water treatment, too?
Posted by Jaymz on May 13, 2014 at 12:12 PM · Report this
@2: see also: SPU's Our Watershed site.
Posted by Phil M on May 13, 2014 at 12:02 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 7

What do you think happens to rivers? Should we dam every river on the planet so they don't dilute the oceans?
Posted by keshmeshi on May 13, 2014 at 11:57 AM · Report this
Not a Seattleite here, but it seems irresponsible to dump treated fresh water into a salt-water sound. Not only is it potentially problematic from an environmental standpoint (creating brackish water), but fresh water is a precious resource! Route that shit down to California!
Posted by joviality on May 13, 2014 at 11:33 AM · Report this

Pretty sure Seattle gets all their drinking water from the Cedar River watershed and that dumping anything into the river itself is a no-no.
Posted by CPN on May 13, 2014 at 11:19 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 3
Granted, it's not akin to New Orleans, at the end of the Mississippi and the dozens of major metropolitan centers upstream from them, but that email sounds like the ad copy for an Evian commercial.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 13, 2014 at 10:50 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 2
There are still towns upstream from Seattle. Are they capturing the water in high elevation reservoirs and piping it to the city? Because if they're collecting it in or near the city, I wonder how the water hasn't passed through other municipalities and their wastewater systems.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 13, 2014 at 10:49 AM · Report this
Kinison 1
I blame Steven Tyler and Keith Richards for this.
Posted by Kinison on May 13, 2014 at 10:34 AM · Report this

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