As fun as it is to talk about records, wildlife, and belly flops- there is also a serious side to Dr. Fath’s historic swim. At its heart, TenneSwim is a water quality research and awareness effort, with the goal of helping people understand their impact on our environment.

Today in Knoxville, the Metro Drug Coalition and WBIR Channel 10 hosted “10 Takes Back,” a medication take back event. Participants were able to drop off unused medications, including both prescription and over-the-counter medicines for proper disposal. In addition to preventing substances from falling into the wrong hands, events like these are critical in the effort to improve local water quality.

An AP investigation showed that a vast array of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and hormones have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

Flushing unused medications was a common practice recommended for years, even by health care professionals. It seemed the safest way to dispose of prescription drugs to keep them out of the wrong hands. But all of these medications and products end up in our wastewater flow and sewage treatment plants are not equipped to remove these chemicals from the water. And now there is increasing evidence that they are polluting water bodies across the country, including our drinking water sources.

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Most septic systems and wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove pharmaceutical substances from the water.

These compounds, termed PPCPs, or pharmaceuticals and personal care products (which also include nutritional supplements and veterinary medications), are showing up in streams, rivers, and groundwater. Studies indicate that chemicals from PPCPs, even at very small concentrations in the water, may be harmful to aquatic life. With more people using prescription medications everyday, the likelihood of these chemicals becoming an even greater problem is very real. No one knows for certain whether PPCPs in the water are harmful to people. Researchers are exploring whether the cumulative effects of long-term exposure can cause problems for both humans and wildlife.

Dr. Fath explains the membrane that is attached to his leg, sampling substances in the water.

Part of the TenneSwim project is aimed at sampling the Tennessee River for pharmaceutical substances. Dr. Fath has a membrane attached to his leg that is collecting materials which he comes into contact with in the Tennessee River. At the end of the swim stage the contents of the sampler will be extracted and carefully tested for water-soluble organic chemicals, including PPCPs. The effects of these chemicals is still not well known, and the knowledge gained from this effort can go a long way toward helping us gain a greater understanding of human impacts in our waterways.