LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — From prescribed medication to illicit drugs, we are leaving traces behind in the water cycle – those chemicals are moving through the Las Vegas Wash and into Lake Mead, prompting scientists at the College of Southern Nevada to sound the alarm.
Researchers and students at CSN’s School of Sciences & Mathematics took part in a global study to investigate the effects of pharmaceuticals on the world’s waterways. As part of the project, the team took samples up and down the Las Vegas Wash, the 12-mile-long channel, which moves treated wastewater out of the Las Vegas valley and into Lake Mead.
All treated sewage and runoff move through the wash and into the lake.
“Why go out and test our treated sewage?” the 8 News Now I-Team’s David Charns asked researcher Dr. Douglas Sims.
“I think it is important, because everything we do as a person, or a human actually affects everything around us. We are all interconnected,” Sims, who is also the school’s dean, said.
The I-Team followed Sims as he collected samples at a site along the wash in Henderson: pulling out what we are putting in.
“Most of it is processed sewage,” he said, describing the water. “It’s not dirty, it’s actually relatively clean and safe.”
However, his research has found “significant amounts of drugs,” Sims said, including THC, cocaine and methamphetamine. From antibiotics to beta-blockers, caffeine to codeine, the pharmaceuticals our bodies are processing, and emitting are ending up back in our water source.
“Everything that people take and excrete is coming through the system at trace level, but it’s still able to be detected quite easily with current technology,” Sims said.
A CSN lab holds some of that multi-million-dollar technology. Sims’ samples go through a 45-minute testing process, where sensors and software plot trace amounts of chemical compounds.
When the I-Team visited the lab, the system was testing for anti-seizure medication.
Results are expressed in parts per trillion. The levels are not yet harmful to humans, but other organisms do not have the privilege of a high-tech treatment facility. Mother Nature’s machinery does not discriminate.
Sims’ research found 28 compounds in the wash, including antidepressants, opioids, and medications to treat acid reflux, allergies, coughs, diabetes, high blood pressure, muscle spasms, nerve pain and shingles.
“I’m concerned this will be a bigger problem later in the food web,” Sims said. “Bacteria is a very bad organism and if they get exposed to antibiotics, they become stronger and stronger, and it will be harder to treat them when you become ill with the bacteria.”
Over time, as Las Vegas’ groundwater shrinks and the volume of wastewater increases, those trace levels will only multiply. Their effects on plants and small organisms and animals living in the wash and in the lake is unknown.
“Active pharmaceutical ingredients are emitted to the natural environment during their manufacture, use, and disposal,” the final paper for the study from the University of York states. “There is evidence that environmental exposure to APIs has deleterious effects on the health of ecosystems and humans (e.g., by selecting for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, feminizing fish, and increasing the susceptibility of fish to predation).”
“What will happen in 20 years or 30 years to the environment when we expose organisms that we depend on?” Sims said. “We need them. If we contaminate them with our drugs, that is going to come back and affect us at some point.”
Sims and his team are regularly sampling the wash, including during big music festivals known for hardcore partying and drug misuse. During those weekends, Sims and his team have recorded spikes in drugs like meth and cocaine moving through the wash and into the lake.
There are no signs any compounds are making it back into the water we drink at dangerous levels, Sims said, adding the Southern Nevada Water Authority does an excellent job at removing impurities in the lake.
“All drinking water treated and delivered by the Southern Nevada Water Authority meets or surpasses Safe Drinking Water Act and health-based standards,” a spokesperson said, “Over the past 20 years, SNWA has also developed and implemented cutting edge methods to monitor our water supply for pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, and relevant metabolites.”
“Our monitoring and research show that a multi-barrier treatment approach, particularly the combination of ozone and chlorine at our drinking water treatment facilities, protects the health of Southern Nevada residents from compounds that might be found at low levels in the Las Vegas Wash,” the spokesperson added.
With nearly 250 participating locations, the overall study found some of the most polluted water sources were in Asia, particularly in developing countries.