Traces of pain relievers and hormones, including one known to feminize male fish, are lurking in the water below Cherry Valley — a rural Inland foothill community where debate has raged over whether to ban septic tanks and force people to hook up to a costly sewer system.

A study that examined whether harmful nitrates already in groundwater serving roughly 100,000 residents in Cherry Valley, Beaumont, southeastern Calimesa and nearby areas was coming from septic-tank leach fields also tested for pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

The findings of pharmaceuticals and a certain kind of nitrate, which indicates the presence of human waste, “conclusively shows that the septic tanks are causing the degradation,” said Mark Wildermuth, president of Wildermuth Environmental Inc., which conducted the study last year.

The larger issues of pharmaceuticals discovered in the nation’s drinking supply was reported in an Associated Press investigation last week. Little is known about their effect on human health. No state or federal rules require water districts to test for them or to treat them.

Following publication of the AP report last week, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, said they would hold a hearing, likely in early April, to determine what can be done. The two sent a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanding to know by April 4 how the agency plans to respond to pharmaceutical pollution.

Agency officials, in a statement issued last week, said they continue to evaluate the effect on public health and aquatic life from trace amounts of pharmaceuticals that have been found in rivers and other drinking-water sources. And Monday, government and pharmaceutical industry officials launched an initiative to tell Americans they should crush medicines in sealed plastic bags and throw them into the trash rather than flush them down the toilet.

Most processes that treat sewage water do not filter out pharmaceuticals.

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