The magazine 60 Million Consumers is official: out of fifty bottled waters tested – mineral or spring – ten contained traces of medicines or pesticides: Hépar, Mont Roucous, Saint-Amand, Vittel, Volvic, Carrefour Discount, Cora, Cristalline, Salvetat, Saint-Yorre, and three brands of bottled water: O’water, Obio, Culligan Val-de-Marne
A stone in the bottlers’ garden, especially for mineral waters. These waters are not only judged for their sanitary quality, which must be obvious, but also for their “original purity”. They must not undergo any chemical treatment (such as spring water) and their mineral composition must be stable throughout the year.
When we know the energy spent by companies to protect the sources of their most prestigious brand from pollution, we can wonder about the general state of the environment and groundwater.
The authors of the study are cautious about one of the results they themselves describe as a “great surprise”. Their study shows that 10% of the bottled waters analysed “have residues of tamoxifen”, a synthetic hormone used in the treatment of breast cancer. “The levels are extremely low: at most, 0.001% of the usual dose for a treatment by drinking 1.5 litres,” they specify, but they persist and sign: the laboratory, by repeating all the analyses, has reached the same conclusions. “It is a specific drug for breast cancer. For it to happen in protected catchment areas, sewers would have to discharge the urine of treated women and these waters would have to penetrate into the deep aquifer,” says Yves Lévi, a researcher at the public health and environment laboratory of the University of Paris-Sud, perplexed to say the least, while most of the sources are located hundreds of kilometres from cities and hospitals.
The review not only analysed bottled water but also tap water that is not doing much better, since, out of a sample taken in ten cities, they found traces of pesticides in seven of them.
All these results provoked an immediate reaction from professionals on Monday. “The water sold to consumers is perfectly safe, and the samples taken are in the order of nanotrace,” the Syndicat des eaux de sources said with offence. “There is no drug residue in natural mineral waters”, added the trade union chamber of the same name, and “the traces of pesticides found are at infinitesimal levels and therefore perfectly in compliance with the regulations”. This work will be followed by others. For example, Anses has launched a major analysis campaign on bottled water, which will focus, if necessary, on the sources themselves. The results will be available in 2014.
How do pesticides evolve in the soil first, then in the groundwater? This is the question that BRGM (Bureau de recherche géologique et minière) has been working on, even though today nearly 60% of water abstractions are contaminated.
A titanic work whose first results are impressive. A study conducted in Montreuil-sur-Epte (Val-d’Oise), for example, showed that a pesticide (atrazine) that has not been used since 1999 is still very strongly present in groundwater seven years later. Worse still, a derivative (deethilathrasin) is also present in the source water at concentrations two to three times higher than the initial product. And no one knows whether it will take another two years, ten years or twenty years for all traces of these products to disappear.
Risks of contamination
An experience that unfortunately cannot be transposed to the whole of France far from it. And this is the challenge of the work of researchers who, to do so, also participate in European programmes. The latest one, called Footprint, brings together scientists from nine countries and aims to develop tools for assessing the long-term risk of water contamination by plant protection products.
“The variability of plant protection product concentrations and the heterogeneity of environments make it difficult to characterize pollution and change water quality,” says Christophe Mouvet, one of the researchers at BRGM (Bureau des recherches des ressources géologiques et minières).
“To date,” explains Ivan Dubus, one of his colleagues, “we suspect that there is a very large stock of pesticides in the soil, we know that the transfer time to the groundwater can last several decades and we note that natural attenuation phenomena in the groundwater are generally limited. These observations and comments therefore leave a lot of uncertainty about France’s ability to meet the requirements of the European directive requiring good water quality by 2015.
A missed opportunity also for the draft water law currently under discussion in the National Assembly. It provides for few measures to reduce the use of pesticides by farmers.
Waters polluted by drugs
THE FIGARO. – Is the problem of drugs in water a recent one?
Yves LEVI. – The first major series of analyses were carried out in Berlin in the early 2000s in the rivers and groundwater tables that supply the city with drinking water. The researchers found traces of human pollution in these waters, including anti-inflammatory drugs, antiepileptics and lipid-lowering agents. As a result of this work in Germany, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducted analyses in 2002 in 139 American rivers, 80% of which contained over-the-counter drug residues for the public and 50% of traces of antibiotics and estrogen hormones. Since then, this issue of traces of drugs in water has joined the global concern about the environmental and health risks associated with mixtures of emerging pollutants in our environment (plasticizers, flame retardants, persistent organic pollutants, pesticides…).
Are there any data available in France?
Compared to Germany, the United States and Great Britain, France has fallen far behind in this area. Three years ago, our team measured the estrogen potential and in particular ethynylestradiol in the waters of the Paris region. Wastewater treatment plants release traces of hormones that result in very low concentrations of a few nan o grams (millionths of a milligram) per litre in the Seine. But even at these concentrations, hormones disrupt the sexual development of fish. There are occasional studies in France but the level of knowledge on the general state of contamination of our resources remains very low. Certainly, French public or private research laboratories collaborate on European study programmes, in particular on the discharges of wastewater treatment plants and their sludge used as agricultural fertilizer. We are currently conducting a study program to model drug releases to hospital sewers. But this is still not enough, given the importance of the issues at stake.
What is the impact of veterinary medicines ?
For several years now, European regulations have required veterinary medicinal products to calculate their foreseeable concentrations in the environment and the eco-toxicological risks in authorisation dossiers. For human medicines, similar regulations are still being developed. It is too early to assess the proportion of contamination related to veterinary drugs compared to human drugs. The proportions vary from region to region depending on the intensive livestock and fish farming areas where antibiotics and pest control products are used or in urban areas where domestic animals are dominant and sometimes even treated with anti-cancer products. Residues of veterinary drugs are found in manure spread on fields or discharged to pastures. In addition, contamination also comes from liquid discharges from pharmaceutical production plants that are sometimes sent to the treatment plant. For humans, drugs eliminated by urine or feces are either found in septic tanks or carried by sewers to wastewater treatment plants that have not been designed to eliminate all traces of molecules that chemistry and pharmacy have been able to invent over the past forty years. Some drugs will be degraded by the wastewater treatment plant, others settle in the sludge, but some pass partly through the treatment and end up being discharged and diluted in the watercourses. Antibiotics, anticancer drugs, iodinated contrast products will thus join the large mass of other nano and micropollutants such as solvents, pesticides, hydrocarbons or detergents.
But what is the risk to tap water ?
About 40% of drinking water is produced in France from surface waters (rivers, lakes) that are polluted by discharges from our activities. Drinking water production plants have already been improved overall in France to produce very good quality water despite contamination of rivers and groundwater. But there is a great deal of concern worldwide, particularly with regard to molecules that are poorly eliminated or transformed by chlorination treatments. Considerable funding will be needed to renovate sanitation systems if we do not know how to reduce or stop pollution upstream.