University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

What’s in your water?

Christine Vatovec
Photograph by Andy Duback


What’s in your water?

ENVIRONMENT, MEDICINE | For ten days, in May 2014—while UVM and Champlain College students were leaving town for the summer—professor Christine Vatovec and some colleagues collected cleaned water as it poured out of the Burlington sewage treatment plant into Lake Champlain. Then they shipped the samples to the National Water Quality Laboratory in Colorado, where the water was screened for 100 prescription drugs.

“I was surprised at what we found,” says Vatovec, an interdisciplinary scientist who has appointments in both the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the UVM College of Medicine: fifty-four pharmaceutical chemicals—from antibiotics to antidepressants.

Vatovec also wanted to see if the team could find any sign of the departing students in the water samples. They could. Over the student move-out period, the concentration of ulcer medications in the outflow went up, while the concentration of antiviral drugs, which are often used to treat sexually transmitted diseases, went down. Ulcers are most prevalent among people over sixty-five, so with students no longer flushing their share of water, the relative amount of these meds spiked; in contrast, STD viruses tend to be more common among the student-age population.

The treatment plant was doing a good job removing what it was designed to remove—fecal matter and bacteria—but today “there are 70,000 to 100,000 new chemicals in our environment that were not invented when wastewater treatment plants were designed a hundred years ago,” she says.

Now the question is: “so what?” says Vatovec. With some of the drugs being detected in parts per trillion, “does it matter if they’re in the lake?” she asks. “Maybe they don’t mean anything to the ecosystem,” Vatovec says. But the few studies done in other lakes and rivers have shown that some pharmaceuticals in the environment have extremely potent effects—including reproductive failure in mollusks and fish. 

“It’s impossible to know yet what these chemicals mean for Lake Champlain—so were trying to figure that out,” Vatovec says. Her research program is following the circular path in both directions—out into the ecosystem and back to human medical care. “The part I’m most passionate about,” she says, “how do we prevent overprescribing?” 

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