Contamination of Messalonskee Lake by pharmaceuticals and chemicals in personal care products

Institution: Colby College
Sponsor: Maine Water Resources Research Institute through the Mitchell Center

Contamination from
 pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) is an emerging and alarming threat to ecosystems and public health. A growing body of research has documented PPCP contamination of lakes and streams all over the world and the effects of these chemicals on aquatic ecosystems. Little is known about Maine’s lakes and this project will survey numerous sites for PPCPs on Messalonskee Lake—located in the Belgrade Lakes watershed in central Maine. Researchers will work closely with the local watershed association to conduct the research, disseminate findings, and develop plausible interventions to help prevent further introduction of PPCPs to this watershed.

PPCPs can reach aquatic ecosystems through several routes, often via treated sewage from wastewater treatment plants or septic systems from individual homes. Contamination has been documented in a variety of surface waters in the U.S., including lakes in urban settings and in remote areas far from human and industrial activities.

Pharmaceutical compounds that pose a hazard to aquatic ecosystems include synthetic estrogen from birth control pills, antihistamines from allergy medications, common pain relievers, and anti-depressants. These, combined with chemicals from consumer products, like triclosan (an antimicrobial agent), caffeine, bisphenol A (found in durable plastics) and illicit drugs, have been shown to have a wide range of biological impacts, including lethal toxicity at very high concentrations, feminization of fish and amphibians, and changes in bacterial communities in aquatic ecosystems. Because PPCPs can persist in aquatic environments for extended periods of time, they may accumulate in these systems and have long-term effects. It is unknown how exposure to these chemicals in surface waters may be affecting human health.

Surveys for PPCPs within the state of Maine have been extremely limited. Some compounds found commonly in the environment, including caffeine and triclosan, have been detected in other Maine lakes. Preliminary data collected by our research team found caffeine, a caffeine metabolite, and amphetamines commonly occurring in 14 samples collected in December 2015 from three of the Belgrade Lakes (Long Pond, East Pond, and Great Pond). Levels of these compounds were similar to those found in other U.S. studies. Surveys found higher concentrations at boat launch sites than residential sites, indicating that these may be a source of introduction into the lake ecosystems. Importantly, an additional 20 PPCP chemicals tested for in these three lakes were not found above the limit of detection, suggesting that these lakes may be cleaner than those in other studies. There may be other effects of PPCPs on lake ecosystems, and the research team will use Messalonskee Lake as a study site to pursue follow-up research on this issue.

Team Leader:
William McDowell, Visiting Assistant Professor, Colby College

Team Members:

  • Denise Bruesewitz, Assistant Professor, Colby College
  • Gail Carlson, Colby College
  • Rachel Whitney, Friends of Messalonskee Lake