AP Finds Prescription Drugs in Drinking Water

March 10, 2008
Investigation discovered prescription drugs in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans

An Associated Press investigation discovered an array of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, the AP reported. Among the substances found were antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones.

Utilities insist their water is safe, and the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, miniscule in comparison to the levels of a medical dose. But the presence of so many prescription drugs, as well as over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, has scientists worried about long-term consequences to human health, the AP reported.

The AP discovered over the course of a five-month inquiry that prescription drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 metropolitan areas.

The prescription drugs get into the water supply when people take medicine and their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the excess passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before being discharged, and some water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and delivered to consumers. Most treatments do not remove all drug residue, however.

"We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The AP National Investigative Team surveyed the 50 largest cities in the nation and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all 50 states. They also studied hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 scientists, officials and academics, they reported.

The federal government hasn't set safety limits for drugs in water and doesn't require any testing. Of the 62 major water providers contacted, only the drinking water for 28 was tested, according to the AP.

Some providers only screen for one or two pharmaceuticals, leaving the possibility that others are present.

The AP's investigation also indicated that watersheds also are contaminated. Tests conducted in the watersheds of 35 of the 62 major providers surveyed by the AP detected pharmaceuticals in 28.

In several cases, officials at municipal or regional water providers told the AP that pharmaceuticals had not been detected, but the AP obtained test results from independent researchers that showed otherwise.

Of the 28 metropolitan areas where drinking water supplies were tested, only Albuquerque; Austin, Texas; and Virginia Beach, Va.; said tests were negative, the AP reported.

The AP also contacted one small water provider in each state, and two each in Missouri and Texas, that serve communities with populations near 25,000. All but one said their drinking water was not tested for pharmaceuticals; officials in Emporia, Kan., declined to answer the AP's questions, citing post-9/11 issues.

Rural consumers who rely on their own wells aren't in the clear either, experts say.

"Septic systems are essentially small treatment plants that are essentially unmanaged and therefore tend to fail," researcher Anthony Aufdenkampe of the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pa., said.

Even those who use bottled water and home filtration systems may not avoid exposure. Bottlers do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade group, the AP reported. Neither do the makers of home filtration systems.

The U.S. is not the only nation facing contamination; more than 100 different pharmaceuticals have been detected in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and streams throughout the world.

In the U.S., pharmaceuticals also infiltrated underground aquifers, the source of 40% of the nation's water supply. Federal scientists who tested water from aquifers near contaminant sources such as landfills and animal feed lots in 24 states found minuscule levels of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, the AP reported.

Some prescription drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters, tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern water treatment processes. The EPA says there are no sewage treatment systems specifically engineered to remove pharmaceuticals.

Although reverse osmosis removes virtually all pharmaceutical contaminants, it is costly for large-scale use and leaves several gallons of polluted water for every one made drinkable.

Recent research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated more quickly, the kidney cells grew more slowly and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation, the AP reported.

While scientists stress that the research is limited and there are many unknowns, they say that documented health problems in wildlife are disconcerting.

"It brings a question to people's minds that if the fish were affected ... might there be a potential problem for humans?" EPA research biologist Vickie Wilson told the AP. "It could be that the fish are just exquisitely sensitive because of their physiology or something. We haven't gotten far enough along."

With limited research funds, said Shane Snyder, research and development project manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a greater emphasis should be put on studying the effects of drugs in water.

"I think it's a shame that so much money is going into monitoring to figure out if these things are out there, and so little is being spent on human health," Snyder said. "They need to just accept that these things are everywhere — every chemical and pharmaceutical could be there. It's time for the EPA to step up to the plate and make a statement about the need to study effects, both human and environmental."

Grumbles acknowledged that just late last year the agency developed three new methods to "detect and quantify pharmaceuticals" in wastewater. "We realize that we have a limited amount of data on the concentrations," he said. "We're going to be able to learn a lot more."

While Grumbles said the EPA had analyzed 287 pharmaceuticals for possible inclusion on a draft list of candidates for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, he said only one, nitroglycerin, was on the list. Nitroglycerin can be used as a drug for heart problems, but is being considered mainly for its use in making explosives.

Much is unknown, and many scientists are skeptical that trace concentrations will ultimately prove to be harmful to humans.

There's growing concern in the scientific community, meanwhile, that while our bodies may not be harmed by a relatively big one-time dose, they may suffer from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a long time period, perhaps stirring allergies or nerve damage, the AP reported.

Federal environmental officials and nonprofit watchdog environmental groups have focused on regulated contaminants such as pesticides, lead and PCBs, which are present in higher concentrations and pose a clear health risk.

But some experts say medications may pose a unique danger because they were crafted to act on the human body.

"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," said zoologist John Sumpter at Brunel University in London, who has studied trace hormones, heart medicine and other drugs.

"We know we are being exposed to other people's drugs through our drinking water, and that can't be good," said Dr. David Carpenter, who directs the Institute for Health and the Environment of the State University of New York at Albany.

The entire article can be found online at: http://ap.google.com/article/ ALeqM5hGsoyElv4ZL879LW6z2aZS0Pix7AD8VA14500.

Source: The Associated Press

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