Saturday, May 3, 2008

Pharmaceuticals in the drinking water

In March 2008, the Associated Press released the results of their 5-month investigation into the presence of pharmaceuticals in the water supply (such as birth control pills, antibiotics, antidepressants, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen) in the water supply of 24 major metropolitan areas.

They found a lot to be worried about. Not only are human medications being flushed down the toilet, literally, but drugs used on animals are making their way into the drinking water. The concentrations were well below the normal medical dosage, in tiny quantities of parts per billion or trillion, but the fact that antibiotics, antidepressants, and hormones were found in the drinking water of an estimated 41 million Americans has raised concerns among health officials.

Most drug byproducts, expelled from the body after a person has taken the pills or medication, are removed from the water supply during waste treatment. However, not all compounds are filtered out by current treatment methods. As the usage of pharmaceuticals increases, the amount of residue in the water may increase for both prescription and over-the-counter medications and there is currently no federal requirement for screening.

The investigation included testing results by U.S. metropolitan areas from California to New Jersey and Detroit to Kentucky and included watershed evaluations. The most notable finds from the U.S. Geological survey and local water authorities outlined by the report included 56 different pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia, anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic medications in the treated water of more than 18 million Southern California residents, sex hormones in San Francisco’s water, mood stabilizers in the Passaic Valley treatment plant that serves New Jersey, six drugs in Washington D.C.’s supply, and antibiotics in the drinking water in Tucson, Arizona.

However, not all areas test for all pharmaceuticals, greatly limiting what could be found. Also, more than half of the cities contacted for information by the AP did not respond, including Houston, New York City, Boston, Baltimore, and Miami, though watershed testing revealed hormones and pharmaceuticals in the New York water supply. The water authorities insist that the water is safe. The AP found that sometimes when the local water providers said the results of screening were negative, independent screeners had different results.

The contamination is not just an urban problem. Caffeine was found in the water supply of less populated areas and those who draw from a well are at risk of contamination from failed septic systems. Other countries are also at risk, studies have found Asia, Australia, Canada, and Europe to also have pharmaceuticals in their lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and streams.

Local environmental groups, such as Environment Colorado, are calling for the pharmaceutical industry to take responsibility. In a press release, the group called for drug makers to either re-engineer their medications to not make their way into the water supply or to pay for the cleanup and new treatment methods that are necessary. They voiced concerns about the development of resistant infections and the adverse health effects of hormone exposure.

Additional treatment methods and research are necessary because some compounds become more toxic when presented with chlorine, a common treatment chemical. Also, technologies such as reverse osmosis, which would solve the problem, are too expensive to initiate on the large-scale according to reports from environmental research and watchdog groups.


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