This is the latest installment in the Signs of Sustainability series, organized by Sustainable Tompkins.  Visit them online at This installment was written by Sharon Anderson of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

[do_widget id= text-55 ]

Ithaca buzzes with returning college students each August. Cultural activities, traffic, and spending at local merchants increase. And maybe, so does the amount of drugs in our waste water. Relative to the general population, college students are heavy users of antidepressants, birth control pills and drugs that treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

These pharmaceuticals are designed to be biologically active and they are, at best, only partially treated before being discharged to our waterways, where they join a host of other manmade consumer compounds, collectively referred to as emerging contaminants.

The Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility, with partners, is doing cutting-edge research about the water entering the facility (influent) and the treated water that is discharged to the lake (effluent). Researchers want to know if concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the lake pose a threat to the environment and if college students contribute a significant load of select compounds to the Ithaca wastewater treatment system.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are indicators of water quality that have been studied for a long time. Less is known about the amount and consequences of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in our nation’s waters. Communities with a large college student populations, with potentially higher levels of prescription drugs, make great study locations. But let’s face it– many of us, no matter what our age, have prescriptions and use health and beauty products.

Despite the rapidly growing concern over emerging pollutants, there are no established regulations for pharmaceutical control, largely because of a lack of scientific consensus. Scientists at Ithaca College, Cornell University, US Geological Survey, the NYS Department of Health and Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility have been sampling and comparing pharmaceuticals and personal care products in Cayuga Lake, its tributaries, and in the influent and effluent of Ithaca’s wastewater plant. Results are starting to come in.

Fall Creek and Sixmile Creek are the source of drinking water for Cornell University and Ithaca College respectively. The creek water before it is processed into drinkable water is called raw water. The raw water of both creeks have low concentrations of many of the compounds being tested.

The classes of compounds being studied include anti-convulsants, anti-depressants, antihistamines, anti-virals, cardio- pulmonary drugs, opioids, compounds that mimic hormones and ingredients in personal care products and such as fragrance. Test results expected soon will show which compounds are removed in the drinking water process.

The influent water entering the wastewater treatment plant was compared to the background level and shows a greater increase in December, during college finals, than in June after the students have left. The seasonal differences may be influenced by the absence and presence of college students.

Wastewater treatment is designed to remove disease-causing organisms, nutrients and organic matter. The processes were not engineered to handle emerging contaminants. So far, the study shows that many pharmaceuticals are poorly removed by the wastewater treatment processes. Some of the compounds not found in the effluent may be in the biosolids (commonly called sludge) and some may break down.

Other studies have found that fish experience alterations in behavior, sex, and locomotion when exposed to environmentally relevant concentrations of certain drugs. In this study, fathead minnows were exposed to the concentrations of two neuroactive compounds (limonene and carbamazepine) that are found in the lake. So far, there were no observed behavior effects in fathead minnows. Future study will look at the trophic transfer and toxicity of microplastics to daphnia, a zooplankton, and fathead minnows.

Other next steps include analyzing water samples for illicit drugs, testing biosolids for emerging compounds, conducting a mass balance to determine what compounds are degraded and a comparison of water samples from Burlington, VT (Univ. of Vermont) and Ithaca during finals week.

The partners on this study are filling a major gap in our understanding of emerging contaminants, their environmental concentrations, and the ecosystem repercussions they elicit. This research will be beneficial to all New York municipalities in which pharmaceuticals are found in wastewater.

The research is essential for facilitating model development, future lab experiments, environmental risk assessments, and the ultimately legislation to regulate emerging pollutants. Cooperative Extension and the Floating Classroom are assisting with outreach, which will help the Ithaca community and beyond better understand the complexities of pharmaceuticals and personal care products as pollutants. For more information, visit

[do_widget id= text-61 ]