"A vast array of pharmaceuticals -including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones – have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans," an Associated Press investigation shows. Water in 24 metropolitan areas, including Detroit, Louisville, southern California and Northern New Jersey is particularly at risk.
The report says the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are "tiny." But it also points out that "the presence of so many prescription drugs – and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen – in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health." Those consequences could include reproductive irregularities, the early onset of puberty, and increasing resistance to antibiotics.
The drugs get into our water in several ways. Since our bodies don’t absorb a hundred percent of the drugs we take, we naturally excrete the excess when we urinate. Many Americans flush unused prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs down the toilet. Wastewater treatment plants do a poor job of capturing these chemicals before the water is either sent back out to its original source or cycled back into a region’s water supply.
The wildlife impact of these pharmaceuticals – which also include narcotics, birth control drugs, and antidepressants – is reported in Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency, notes the book, have found fish, frogs, and other aquatic animals sporting both male and female sex organs, freaks of nature attributed primarily to the rising drug levels being measured in rivers, lakes and streams.
Though the AP report and other studies are likely to fuel the craze for bottled water, they shouldn’t. Much bottled water is actually filled with tap water and is therefore likely to be just as drug-addled.
Instead, consumers should consider installing filters that use activated carbon and ozone, substances that are used in Europe to remove drugs from drinking water.
Meanwhile, consumers faced with disposing of leftover drugs should return them to the pharmacy for proper disposal. Barring this, the federal government recommends mixing them with old coffee grounds, cat litter or other trash that makes them difficult to consume before putting them in a nondescript, sealed container and throwing them in the trash. Do not flush them down the toilet.
It is worth noting that, despite the AP report, pharmaceuticals have been showing up in drinking water for at least 20 years. It is time to upgrade municipal water systems to protect people from the onslaught of chemicals they may be unwittingly ingesting every day. It is also imperative to launch a national "give back" campaign to get citizens to return unused drugs to their point of purchase. Alternatively, cities could mount a "pharmaceutical pick-up" the way many of them now sponsor an annual hazardous waste pick-up.
Municipalities can learn from what environmental organizations are already doing. Last Earth Day (April 21, 2007), the Superior Watershed Partnership in northern Michigan collected over one ton of unwanted pharmaceuticals in just three hours.