Editor’s Note: The following is part of a class project originally initiated in the fall of 2021 in the classroom of Professor Adam Kuban at Ball State University. Continuing the project last fall, Kuban challenged his students to find sustainability efforts in the Muncie area and pitch their ideas to Deanna Watson, editor of The Star Press, Journal & Courier and Pal-Item. Several such stories were featured in November and December 2022.
MUNCIE, Indiana – Upon entering the Muncie wastewater treatment plant, the smell of hydrogen sulfide fills the air. The waste water goes through one process after another, removing dirt and sand, E. Coli and ammonia.
If you climbed a few steps and overlooked the White River, you could see how what was once sewage got to its final destination and poured into the river.
Despite these treatments, there is still a chance that small doses of medicines will be left behind when it leaves the facility and returns to its natural home.
“The most important thing is that there is absolutely nothing in it [the plant] remove pharmaceuticals,” said Rick Conrad, director of the Bureau of Water Quality.
However, the plant’s other processes remove some pharmaceuticals anyway, so the plant removes most of them well, Conrad says.
He spends his time running tests for the treatment plant and directly testing the White River. He said Muncie is typical of most communities this size, meaning medicines do end up in the water.
However, Conrad said there was no real danger to humans due to the small amounts of medicines that actually end up in the river. In a 2019 article from “Urban Agriculture & Regional Food Systems,” the authors said it would take 24,000 years for a biosolids worker to be exposed to a dose of ibuprofen.
As defined by the EPA, biosolids are products of wastewater treatment when the treatment separates the liquids from the solids and the solids undergo processes that make them a “semi-solid, nutrient-rich product.” Biosolid workers are the ones who work with the wastewater and with this product.
But there is one group that is affected by drugs in the water: wildlife.
There are changes in White River fish due to drugs, he said, where small percentages of male fish show traits of female fish. They experience changes in appearance, and some male fish produce eggs like a female.
The fish population is overall healthy and this detectable pharmaceutical effect appears to be relatively small. There are other animals in the river, like freshwater mussels and aquatic insects, that don’t appear to be greatly inhibited, but little research has been done, he said.
“Our aquatic species are demonstrating in real time how that’s going to play out,” Maile Lono-Batura, director of Sustainable Biosolids programs at the Water Environment Federation, said via email. “Whether it’s feminization of male fish or fish die-off like we’re seeing with 6PPD quinone in tires and artificial turf.”
According to the 2020 Sources of Pharmaceuticals study, pharmaceuticals are most commonly found in sewage treatment plants. Conrad said some causes of this are flushing the medicine down the toilet and excreting it through use.
“Wastewater is a reflection of modern society,” Lono-Batura said. “Trace amounts of what we consume in our daily lives become part of what is sent to water resource reclamation facilities.”
Even so, Conrad says many plants don’t test for drugs that would come from taxpayer money because of cost concerns, and there’s no test designed to get rid of all drugs. In 2018, he said the Muncie plant decided to test raw sewage, treated sewage and the White River for 16 different drugs. Though they may retest every few years, he and the Bureau of Water Quality don’t think the numbers will vary too much from year to year.
However, they do test for “intersex in fish, PFAS, eDNA studies, or other non-essential testing for emerging problems.”
PFAS, as described by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, are man-made chemicals used in non-stick cookware; water-repellent clothing; some cosmetics; grease, water and oil resistant products; stain-resistant fabrics and carpets; and fire extinguishing foams.
Studies on eDNA refer to DNA “shed into the aquatic environment by cryptic or low-density species,” according to the US Geological Survey website.
“I would just say it’s generally a daunting struggle to keep up with that because every day there are new chemicals being used in medicines and personal care products that end up in the sewers and then down the river before we know what their effects are.” said Conrad.
He and the Bureau of Water Quality trace problems through elimination procedures to find the cause, but he said he wants to understand the safety of things before they get into the environment.
Barry Sneed, public information officer for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), said via email that IDEM has not received any complaints from people intentionally disposing of pharmaceuticals in water. Although it is common for people to flush medication down the toilet, these complaints are rare.
Sneed said IDEM follows FDA recommendations for drug disposal, and Conrad also spoke about the same disposal methods. One such method is drug dispensaries, where people can get rid of their medication without having to flush it down the toilet.
In Muncie, citizens can drop off unwanted prescription drugs at the Delaware County Justice and Rehabilitation Center during regular business hours, according to the Muncie Sanitary District website.
In Richmond, people can drop off medication at Reid Health at a “return kiosk” in the main hall of the hospital campus, according to Reid Health’s website. It can be used for unused or expired prescription medication, unused or expired over-the-counter medication, and pet medication.
In Lafayette, people can drop off medication at CVS Pharmacy on South 18th Street, Northwestern Avenue and Sagamore Parkway, according to Tippecanoe’s website. There are also other locations at the previous link.
“It’s important to understand that while a toilet provides incredible convenience and a public health service, it is by no means a trash can,” Lono-Batura said.
Lono-Batura believes drug dispensaries help prevent contamination at the source.
“Before you flush, remember that there is a force behind flushing, and as a manufacturer, you have a leading role in creating quality products,” said Lono-Batura. “We see firsthand the importance of these resources in building a circular resource economy with major droughts, soil depletion and food security. Play your part and wash responsibly.”