The United States has some of the best drinking water in the world. So you might think that we know what effect trace amounts of pharmaceuticals have on humans and wildlife once they end up in our water, but we don't.
An Associated Press investigation published March 10th, 2008, found that the drinking water of millions of Americans may be contaminated by a wide range of pharmaceuticals. Most communities that have looked have found low levels of prescription drugs in their water - including cattle antibiotics, estrogens and other hormones - and the antidepressants that doctors are no longer permitted to prescribe to adolescents.
But how do the drugs get into our drinking water? According to the AP report, "People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residues."
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee on water quality in April (pdf), leading water quality advocate David Pringle said, "Common sense dictates it's not a good idea to drink somebody else's medicine." Pringle is a New Jersey water specialist representing Clean Water Action and its chapter, the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "We know enough to take timely action now. Attention should be focused on pollution prevention and on ensuring affordable, healthy drinking water, a task which is well within our capacity."
The presence of these pharmaceuticals is nothing short of alarming, given that there are no federal or state standards or monitoring requirements for the vast majority of the drugs in drinking water or waste water. The medical community knows the health effects of the contaminants in medical doses, but there is no study of their effects cumulatively, over long periods of time, in either humans, animals, or on the ecosystem.
More disconcerting still is the danger the drugs pose by their very formula - to be active in small doses. "These are chemicals that are designed to have very specific effects at very low concentrations. That's what pharmaceuticals do. So when they get out to the environment, it should not be a shock to people that they have effects," zoologist John Sumpter of Brunel University in London told AP.
"The primary sources of the drug contamination of drinking water," said Pringle, "include human waste, industrial discharges, disposal of unused drugs, manure used as fertilizer and agricultural runoff." Besides impacting humans, Pringle testified that studies suggest a host of species can be impacted, most notably the feminization of male fish living downstream from wastewater treatment plants. The possible impact on human health, including reproductive function, is among the concerns that warrant increased attention to the presence of these chemicals in U.S. water supplies.
Pharmaceuticals In Drinking Water, Testimony of David Pringle, Campaign Director, New Jersey Environmental Federation, On Behalf of New Jersey Environmental Federation and Clean Water Action Before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality, April 15, 2008 (pdf, 40 Kb)
Pharmaceuticals In Drinking Water, Testimony of Robert Wendelgass, National Deputy Director for Clean Water Action, to the Philadelphia City Council, April 14, 2008 (pdf, 28 Kb)
Pharmaceuticals In Drinking Water, Testimony of John McNabb, Director of Research and Policy for Clean Water Action New England, to oversight hearing Joint Committee on Public Health Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources & Agriculture in Massachusetts, May 13, 2008 (pdf, 95 Kb)
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