Pharmaceuticals in Your Drinking Water

By Rachel Walden — March 10, 2008

The AP has released a report on pharmaceuticals making it into the water supply, and found from a compilation of data that the drugs are detectable in drinking water supplies almost everywhere that tests have been conducted. How do these antibiotics, psychiatric drugs, hormones, and other chemicals end up in the water? Pretty simply, as the report notes:

“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 residue.”

Switching to bottled water is not likely to be a great solution to this problem – many bottled waters on the market are ultimately from a public water supply, and the production, shipment, and disposal of these items creates its own environmental concerns. Although some bottlers use reverse osmosis, which the AP says “removes virtually all pharmaceutical contaminants,” this process is “very expensive for large-scale use and leaves several gallons of polluted water for every one that is made drinkable.” An industry spokesperson commented that, “Bottlers do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals.”

Water that is sourced from springs or underground wells is not immune to the problem, either. The AP notes watershed contamination, and previous studies have detected pharmaceuticals in rivers, streams, and groundwater. Likewise, your home filtration devices are not designed to remove these kinds of chemicals. Ultimately, you’d probably have to avoid all water-based beverages to avoid any low-level pharmaceutical exposure.

The levels detected are very low, much lower than medicinal doses, but the report notes that long-term effects of repeated exposures are not well understood. Frustratingly, scientists have been conducting research to detect drug levels in water sources for at least the past 20 years, although it hasn’t resulted in this testing necessarily becoming widespread or routine. Perhaps this report will inspire researchers to provide some solid evidence on possible health effects, and the EPA and water treatment facilities to follow-up with action where needed.

For even more Monday fun, check out the FDA’s handbook on “defect” levels in food at which action must be taken, such as an “Average of 4 or more rodent hairs per 100 grams of apple butter.” Nice.

2 responses to “Pharmaceuticals in Your Drinking Water”

  1. And then there’s always the concern of the plastics. It’s a no win situation. On one hand we are encouraged to drink more water and then on the other we’re scared that drinking water will do more harm than not drinking it.

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