A two and a half year study by the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga found 13 different kinds of pharmaceutical drugs in the water of the Tennessee River that flows between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Some of the drug remnants included caffeine and a drug used to lower human cholesterol.
While the levels are measured in parts per trillion, meaning they are minuscule to humans, there is worry about the possible effects on wildlife. Scientists said there is potential, if the situation isn't reversed, that the buildup will eventually affect humans.
"Drugs have been found in all water bodies near major population centers, so the Tennessee River is no exception," Joanne Logan, an associate professor in biosystems engineering and soil science at UT in Knoxville, said.
"Drugs are not currently filtered at the water treatment plants," she added. Water treatment plants get their water from surface water of nearby rivers, like the Tennessee River. Meaning, the antidepressants, antibiotics and other medications in the water could be getting into the mouths and bodies of people living in East Tennessee.
Drugs are not the only problem the water in Tennessee is facing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it found 21 different contaminants in Knoxville's water systems, with five at levels above health-based limits.
According to the agency's website, possible toxicities can occur in the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the reproductive system and other systems in the body. There is also a link to certain types of cancers, though the website did not specify which ones.
People have always considered natural resources as free goods, and that outmoded philosophy produces all kinds of abuse.
Michael L. McKinney
The Tennessee Clean Water Network said the Clean Water Act's sewage regulations were broken over 1,000 times between 2000 and 2003. In those years alone, more than one billion gallons of partially treated or raw sewage were dumped into the streams and river in Knoxville. That is enough to fill Neyland Stadium 16 times.
Michael L. McKinney, director of the environmental studies program at UT, said something must be done about the issue.
He said, "Water pollution in our area is a direct result of negligence on the part of the general public. People have always considered natural resources as free goods, and that outmoded philosophy produces all kinds of abuse."
Logan said, "Sediments have negative impacts on fish and aquatic insects, as well as mussels. Pathogens have a negative effect on humans and cause infections when we come into contact with contaminated water. High nutrient levels can result in algal blooms, which are harmful to aquatic animals and plants. Poor water quality, such as in the Tennessee River, costs the water treatment plants more to treat, and they pass the extra expense to customers."
She cited construction, poor land practices, problems with storm water and leaking septic and wastewater systems as the biggest known causes of the problems in Knoxville.
Natalie Harris, of the Division of Water Pollution Control, cited the same reasons for the problem. Harris said urban development contributes to the issue.
She said, "Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are not yet regulated." But she added that she thinks regulation isn't far down the road as the damage from nutrient levels is being realized by local, state and federal governments.
According to the Environmental Working Group, in a list compiled from the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory of 2004, the Tennessee River was the fourth most polluted river in the nation. The Holston River was number 19.
The lists change from year to year, but being so close to the top can't be a good sign. The Mississippi River, which also runs through Tennessee, dumps 1.5 metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico each year.
McKinney said, "By spoiling our own watershed, we degrade our water supply, our recreation and our aesthetic senses. The University plays only a small role in this, but it needs to be a leader in educating the public about solutions to this problem."