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Significant traces of pesticide and medication have been discovered in Israel's drinking water for the first time, experts said at a conference on Monday. The concentrations of the potentially toxic substances are low and not considered dangerous, but experts fear the findings point to a growing danger of toxic substances entering the country's potable water supply.

At a conference on the effects of toxic chemicals on human reproduction, Prof. Ovadia Lev of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem presented Water Authority findings on trace amounts of medication and pesticides in purified sewage and in drinking water.

Several wells in Israel have shown concentrations of pesticides that according to European standards would not be approved as drinking water, but do meet regulations here.

Lev presented the first evidence of its kind showing medicines found in a drinking-water reservoir near the Gush Dan sewage purification facility, located west of Rishon Letzion; the reservoir contained traces of carbamazepine, used to treat epilepsy. The study found that even after purification, sewage still contained medical substances.

"It's important to emphasize that, to be exposed to similar concentrations [of medications] received by hospital patients, a healthy person needs to drink tens of thousands of cubic meters of water an hour, and we [usually] drink just one cubic meter [daily] - so we are not currently talking about a health hazard," Lev said. Nevertheless, he added, it is possible that concentrations of the substances will grow in the future, raising health risks.

Experts believe the toxic chemicals came principally from drinking water that had been contaminated by sewage.

"These are, among other things, leaks from sewage pipes in urban areas," said Sarah Elhanani, the head of the Water Authority division on water quality. "In our view, the primary importance of this research is that we have found a substance that can be used as a marker allowing us to locate and deal with possible pollution sources."

"Our findings show that there is a price for reusing water," added Lev.

The study also included research on pesticide concentrations in drinking water wells. Lev told conference participants that 15 to 17 percent of wells in Israel have been found to carry simazine and atrazine, concentrations which are above European but not Israeli regulations.

Such pesticides can harm human reproductive systems and cause skin infections. "The Europeans can allow themselves stricter restrictions, because they decided to ban the use of these substances," Lev said. "But we still use them here."

Lev added that many wells in Israel have not yet been tested for pesticide contamination. (Zafrir Rinat)