NEW YORK, N.Y. (January 12, 2010) - Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced groundbreaking settlements with five health care facilities located in the New York City Watershed to immediately end the practice of disposing of pharmaceutical waste into the watershed. The agreements announced today are the first-ever settlements requiring sources of pharmaceutical releases to end this risky disposal practice.
The five facilities are located in Delaware and Putnam Counties and within the New York City Watershed, an almost 2000 square mile area that drains into reservoirs and lakes providing drinking water to eight million residents of New York City and one million people living in Westchester, Putnam, Ulster, and Orange Counties. The practice of flushing unused pharmaceuticals allows for the release of painkillers, antibiotics, anti-depressants, hormones and other waste drugs into the watershed - the drinking water supply for almost half the state's residents. To date, only trace amounts of pharmaceuticals have been found in the New York City drinking water supply.
"The 9 million people who get their water from the New York City Watershed enjoy some of the cleanest, safest and best water in the world," said Attorney General Cuomo. "We need to make sure it stays that way. These ground breaking settlements provide a new model to implement immediate and sensible precautions to keep waste drugs out of the drinking water supply."
The settlements arise from a broad, ongoing investigation by Cuomo's office into the pharmaceutical waste management practices of hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities located within the New York City watershed. Today's settlements include: O'Connor Hospital, located in Delhi, Delaware County; Margaretville Memorial Hospital, located in Margaretville, Delaware County; Mountainside Residential Care Center, a nursing home located in Margaretville, Delaware County; Countryside Care Center, a nursing home located in Delhi, Delaware County; and Putnam Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home located in Holmes, Putnam County. All of these facilities cooperated with the investigation.
The settlements require each of the five healthcare facilities to immediately cease all discharges of pharmaceutical wastes into waterways within New York City's watershed and, instead, direct them to waste management facilities capable of safely treating pharmaceuticals. In addition, each facility is required to take other specific steps to ensure safe disposal of pharmaceutical and other wastes in the watershed, including:
- Ensuring that waste management practices, including those related to pharmaceutical waste, comply fully with all New York and federal laws and regulations related to waste management and clean water
- Paying civil penalties for past violations of law and costs incurred by the state in the investigation
- Implementing pharmaceutical "take back programs" to ensure the collection and proper disposal of pharmaceutical wastes generated by area households.
In addition to identifying that the five facilities flushed pharmaceutical wastes down sinks and toilets, Cuomo's investigation found that the facilities' handling of pharmaceutical wastes and other wastes violated various provisions of the federal waste management law (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or "RCRA"), State regulations implementing RCRA, and, in some instances, the federal Clean Water Act. Violations included the failure to properly identify, track, and dispose of pharmaceutical and other wastes defined as "hazardous waste" under RCRA.
Today's announcement is a preventative step toward stemming an emerging threat to New York's safe and high quality drinking water supply.
Pharmaceuticals enter waterways and drinking water from a number of sources, including from private homes and healthcare facilities. When waste pharmaceuticals are flushed down toilets or sinks, they are conveyed to sewage treatment plants or septic systems - neither of which are designed to treat such wastes and do not remove some pharmaceuticals. Further, drinking water treatment plants, including those that chlorinate drinking water, do not consistently remove pharmaceuticals.
Studies suggest that low levels of pharmaceuticals in waterways are harming fish and other aquatic wildlife. There are no long-term studies to evaluate the affect on humans of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water nor is there any documented evidence of harm to date. However, concerns have been raised about the public health consequences of low-level exposures to synthetic hormones, psychoactive drugs, and other waste pharmaceuticals.
Pharmaceuticals have been identified as "contaminants of emerging concern" by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Pharmaceuticals were first detected in U.S. waters about 10 years ago and, since that time, pharmaceuticals have been found in waterways across the nation - including a 2002 study by the U.S. Geological Survey and a 2008 study by the New York State Department of Health and School of Public Health, SUNY Albany that found low levels of antibiotics, heart medications, pain killers, mood stabilizers, and hormones in wastewaters and waterways within the New York City Watershed.
David O. Carpenter, M.D., Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany, said, "Preventing health care facilities from flushing waste pharmaceuticals is extremely important to both the environment and to human health. I applaud Attorney General Cuomo for his actions to prevent pharmaceutical wastes from entering drinking water supplies."
Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said, "Changing disposal practices begins with educating our healthcare workers, providing safe disposal options and enforcement of the law. CCE is delighted that the Attorney General has aggressively pursued protecting our waters from this emerging threat. When we fix our morning coffee it should include sugar and milk, not Ritalin and antibiotics."
Eric A. Goldstein, New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "We want to nip in the bud any emerging threat to the state's water drinking water supplies. We congratulate Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for his vigorous enforcement action, which brought about today's precedent-setting settlements."
Alexander Matthiesen, Executive Director of Riverkeeper, said, "Riverkeeper commends Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for using the State's environmental laws to crack down on illegal discharges of pharmaceuticals and hazardous waste into the New York City Watershed. The discharge of pharmaceutical waste into our waterways poses a serious potential threat to the health and safety of New Yorkers. We are grateful for the Attorney General's leadership in addressing this emerging issue."
Cathleen Breen, Watershed Protection Coordinator, New York Public Interest Research Group, said, "Given the number of health concerns that have been raised by the presence of pharmaceuticals in water bodies used for drinking water, we commend the Attorney General's office for their investigation of the disposal practices of these medical and healthcare facilities. Preventing the flushing of unused pharmaceuticals and the creation of take-back programs will benefit the unfiltered drinking water of millions of New Yorkers."
Private citizens should check whether their community organizes collection events - "take-back" programs - that will accept most common household pharmaceutical wastes and ensure their safe disposal. People should contact their local pharmacy, recycling coordinator, or municipality for more information about household pharmaceutical waste collection events in their area. If no local collection events exist, people should follow federal guidelines established for the proper disposal of household pharmaceuticals wastes. These guidelines can be found at: www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/pdf/prescrip_disposal.pdf.
The Office of the Attorney General, through the New York City Watershed Inspector General (WIG), plays a key role in protecting New York City's watershed and drinking water supplies. The position of Watershed Inspector General, which was established in 1998 by Executive Order, is tasked with enhancing current efforts to protect the New York City drinking water supply from activities that could harm the New York City watershed reservoirs and tributaries. The WIG is responsible for conducting and supervising investigations of alleged violations of law within the Watershed and prosecuting such violations, and for recommending legislative, regulatory and management practice changes to protect the watershed.
This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorney General and New York City Watershed Inspector General Philip Bein and Watershed Inspector General Scientist Charles Silver, under the supervision of Special Deputy Attorney General for Environmental Protection, Katherine Kennedy.